De Grey and Bill Andrews are the main subjects of the film, both
scientists nurturing the same obsession: To find a cure for aging. Their beliefs
and methods differ, particularly when it comes to telomerase, the chromosome
caps that wither away as the human body gets older. I won’t try to summarize
and no doubt mangle the specifics of these telomerase. But, in short, increased
telomerase are present in cancer cells, which poses a problem if we would need more telomerase to stay younger longer.
While both men insist their fixation with the subject stems
from non-personal interests, the documentary nonetheless wisely peeks into their
personal lives, suggesting that aging, one of the truly universally relatable
subjects, is a hard one to completely separate from the realm of the personal.
De Grey, a Brit who currently runs a funded research lab out
of Silicon Valley, has a longstanding marriage with fellow biologist and
Cambridge researcher, Adelaide Carpenter, 19 years his senior. In the film we
also briefly meet de Grey’s 81-year-old mother. One of the poignant aspects of
“The Immortalists” is that certain characters who are introduced die throughout
the film’s making. Such is the case with de Grey’s mother, and with Andrews’
research partner and friend, who has cancer. We also meet Andrews’ father, in his eighties and suffering
increasingly from Alzheimer’s.
Andrews, a molecular biologist and also a long-distance runner,
is fighting other battles, too, both physically and professionally. His
research lab has been shuttered due to lack of funds. And he and his fiancée,
both over 50, are insistent on monthly marathon running, which brings its own
set of challenges for their fit but no longer peak-condition bodies.
Included in the film are photos of the various subjects in their youths.
It’s always striking to see someone twenty or thirty (or more) years younger,
with less grey hairs, more elastic skin, a different look in their eyes. But
it’s particularly effective when we know those subjects have dedicated their
lives to reversing the process that has worn steadily away at them since the vintage
pics were taken.
Scientific attempts to reverse the aging process are of
course the source of controversy. De Grey participates in a debate at Oxford
where a number of concerns are raised — overpopulation, issues of food and
water supply, our carbon footprint, and a discrepancy between bodily and mental degeneration. But de Grey seems unconcerned. Aside from being an immortalist, he’s
apparently also a futurist, firmly holding that future scientific developments
could and will accommodate an anti-aging revolution.
In “Citizen Kane,” Everett Sloane’s character says of
growing old, “It’s the only disease that you don’t look forward to being cured
of.” This idea may be turned on its head by those at the heart of “The
Immortalists” — or, then again, the quote may be more relevant than ever.
"The Immortalists" premiered in the Competition Documentary section at SXSW and opens in NY this Friday, November 28.