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Can We Cure Aging? Absorbing Doc 'The Immortalists' Wants to Know

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 24, 2014 at 11:45AM

At an early point in David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s absorbing documentary '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.
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The Immortalists

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.

The Immortalists

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.


This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, SXSW, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Documentary, Documentaries


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.