SXSW Film Festival Showcases Immortality

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_FS15162While attending this year’s SXSW Film Festival, I noticed several themes, including time travel, yetis, and — the one that popped up most in my viewings — immortality. Here, I’d like to talk about the two films that address that topic most directly.

One of the best documentaries I saw, The Immortalists, depicts two leading scientists in a fight against aging and death. The filmmakers wisely let these characters tell their own stories. Bill Andrews, a long-distance runner, discusses his goals from a personal standpoint: he wants his family and friends to live longer, possibly a lot longer. Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist who drinks beer much of the day, describes his research in a more global/historical vein, e.g. the possibilities for greatness when people have much more time on earth. The question, therefore, is not why, but at what cost?

We quickly learn the ways in which both men eschew the stereotype of the mad scientist plotting away in a castle as he ages alone. Both have loving relationships with companions, friends, and family. Andrews clearly spends a great deal of time enjoying the fruits of the earth, even traveling to the Himalayas to run marathons. De Grey also seems to greatly enjoy nature, whether rowing through city canals or picnicking in the nude with his wife. And even though difficulties arise in each of their lives that make them question their desires to prolong them, we see the biologists as genuinely believing in the value of their cause.

But is their cause of value to the world around them? When the question of overpopulation gets posed to Aubrey in a live debate about anti-aging (which he ends up winning), he counters by arguing that we cannot allow that possible concern to slow our research and the march of progress. In other words, overpopulation shouldn’t be an issue until it becomes an issue. But what happens if the natural death rate of a population already stretching the earth’s resources slows down, or even stops all together?

http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_FS15959For a more humorous take on the subject, we have What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about four vampires living together. When each of the flatmates gets introduced, we see his age listed on the screen, counted in centuries. We also gradually learn that several human characters have become their slaves in return for the promise of eternal life — with conditions, of course, such as no exposure to the sun. Though the film never actually broaches the question, one must wonder, what sort of character would want to live forever without seeing the sun?

One of the great strengths of these films – aside from being very entertaining – is that they invite us to question the potential outcomes, even when their subjects avoid them. And who knows? It could become increasingly important for us to weigh the pros and cons of immortality, especially if either Andrews or de Grey has his way. I’m not quite as concerned about the vampires.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.