According to the makers of The Immortalists, Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey are two of the most important figures in contemporary anti-aging research. Bill is an American molecular biologist and avid marathon runner; prone to empty platitudes, he spends the majority of his time on screen running and giving interviews while doing so. Aubrey is a bearded, middle-aged British hipster who works in the field of biogerontology and expresses himself through ponderous ruminations studded with malapropic literary flourishes. He’s also a polyamorous nudist married to a woman 25 years his senior.
“Aging is a race,” Bill says solemnly as he runs. Describing the onset of Alzheimer’s in his father, he observes, “My dad has changed a lot the past few years…because of aging.” And according to Aubrey, 90 percent of people die from aging-related problems, an observation meant to strike viewers as a profound insight, proof that “aging is the most urgent humanitarian crisis ever.” They’re more intellectually palatable when explaining the nuts and bolts of their research, though even then they’re predisposed to gross oversimplification and reductiveness. For Bill, aging has a lot to do with telomeres, small caps at the end of human chromosomes that become shorter as we age. He believes that the aging process can be reversed by elongating the telomeres with an enzyme called telomerase, a process that has already proven somewhat effective in mice. Conversely, Aubrey wants to eradicate telomerase from the body, which he believes is responsible for the ineradicable nature of many forms of cancer. He’s developed something called the SENS Method, which is aimed at slowing (rather than stopping or reversing) the aging process. The two, thus, propose polar-opposite solutions to aging, a vital conflict that the film fails to sufficiently develop.
While their scientific discoveries sound plausible, if suspiciously simple, both men come off as raving fairground hucksters when describing their personal lives and the inspiration behind their research. Bill and his fiftysomething wife are morally outraged when a doctor tells her that she can no longer run marathons, interpreting this standard medical advice as a death warrant, as if the natural process of aging was targeting her in particular. Later, Bill pays for the privilege of running an ultramarathon in the Himalayas, which has already nearly killed him once before. The filmmakers intend the couple’s perseverance to awe the viewers and instill in them a profound admiration for the courage and beauty of these people’s privileged lives. In reality, these are simply people with too much time and money on their hands. As typical wealthy megalomaniacs, Bill and his wife are just frustrated that their money can’t buy them immortality.
Like Bill’s ultramarathons, Aubrey’s nudism and polyamory are meant to deepen the viewer’s understanding of his professional motivation. But his lifestyle choices are irrelevant to his scientific work, and appear to be thrown in just to flesh out the film’s 88-minute runtime. These personal revelations, coming so late in the film, inadvertently reveal what these people really are: leaders of a scientific cult. They’re charismatic faith healers masquerading beneath the guise of scientism, out to despoil their wealthy investors with the promise of bestowing immortality in return. Some voices of reason and skepticism do make an appearance near the end of the film to rebut and deflate Bill and Aubrey’s monumental claims, but aren’t allowed to fully elaborate on their arguments. As a result, The Immortalists only succeeds at lending credence to their delusions of grandeur.