At an early point in David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s absorbing documentary and SXSW premiere “The Immortalists,” theoretical biologist Aubrey de Grey, who sports a beard of wizardly proportions, says, “I don’t want to end up here.” The “here” he speaks of so dismissively is a graveyard.
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" is screening in the Competition Documentary section at SXSW.