In the much-awaited sequel to the movie Avatar, there is a passing, peculiar mention of life extension. This mention, as can be expected, is negative. In the movie, the greedy, nature-destroying humans hunt a local whale-like species for several ounces of precious liquid secreted by the animals’ brains.
Why? Because this liquid stops aging, which makes it “the most valuable substance in the universe”. So valuable, in fact, that the hunters do not hesitate to kill the “whales” who possess humanlike levels of intelligence and never fight back because in their culture, killing is a taboo. You can start crying now.
The motif of life extension and immortality is probably as ancient as art itself. In the oldest known epos, Gilgamesh, the protagonist, pursues but cannot achieve immortality. Since then, art has been fascinated with life extension, mostly not in a good way.
In the movie Three Thousand Years of Longing, the main character says after being offered three wishes by a jinni: “There’s no story about wishing that is not a cautionary tale”. The same is true for every tale about life extension and immortality. Is it surprising, then, that even today, people harbor deep suspicions and stunningly inaccurate perceptions about geroscience?
Just how bad is it?
A few years ago, Mair Underwood, a sociologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, published a paper that sums up the movie industry’s attitudes toward life extension. To do so, she analyzed 19 movies that deal with life extension, shot between 1973 and 2011.
Underwood found that pursuing life extension was almost universally portrayed as unnatural, arrogant, secretive, selfish, reckless, godless, heretical, and, in one instance, satanic. Even when the scientists in such movies are driven by the purest intentions, the pursuit of longevity does not end well.
According to the paper, “the audience is actively discouraged from sharing enthusiasm for life extension… and from identifying with life extension scientists and those who choose life extension”. Extended life is presented as void of value and meaning, a “nightmare”, a “curse”, and “not really living”.
A prominent theme was that life extension would exacerbate social divides and that access to it would be unfairly distributed. “With death presented as a necessary part of life that adds value”, the paper notes, “and the acceptance of death presented as bringing true joy, it is hardly surprising that mortality is depicted as more valuable than immortality”.
While science fiction is not expected to lean towards the “science” part, it is worth noting that the portrayal of the scientific aspect of life extension in Avatar: The Way of Water and in most other movies is highly unrealistic. We know now that there exists no magic pill or substance that can singlehandedly stop or reverse aging.
Aging is a complex phenomenon that requires combination approaches, the first generation of which are being developed right now. Even if we were to find an animal-sourced anti-aging substance, we would be able to synthesize its active ingredients. No killing of intelligent whales would ever be required.
The wider context
Interestingly, like the Russian doll (the real doll, not the eponymous Netflix series), the small anti-longevity motif in Avatar: The Way of Water is nestled inside a wider anti-progress narrative.
Humanity has a horrible history of destructive practices in colonization, but at least its worst forms are behind us now. Why would future humans, after mastering interstellar flight, bring back old colonial horrors, complete with merciless subjugation of “lesser” conscious beings, rampant exploitation of natural resources, and whaling – something that was banned in the late 20th century? Why would our moral principles deteriorate rather than improve with time, in defiance of humankind’s whole history? Theoretically, that’s possible, but Avatar: The Way of Water provides no explanation for that; it is just assumed.
Juxtaposed with that is the ethos of a beautiful primeval culture living in perfect harmony with nature without ever exhausting its resources. Historical reality, however, is quite different. Early humans wreaked havoc on ecosystems wherever they went, driving multiple species into extinction, especially large ones. Megafauna of islands such as Tasmania and probably Australia suffered the most from hunting and burning of forests. Early humans multiplied and did everything they could to survive without caring too much about the environment.
Our ancestors were also largely helpless against diseases, which led to short lifespans and lots of suffering. Their religious and cultural practices often included intergroup and intragroup violence, and their knowledge of the world was rudimentary at best. We might have something to learn about sustainability from some hunter-gatherer practices, but romanticizing early humans, while simultaneously painting technological and scientific progress in grim colors, does humanity a great disservice.
In 2013, an expansive poll by Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they would want to take a pill that would extend their life by decades. This is good wording, since it implies neither immortality nor insignificantly small life extension. Still, most respondents answered “no”. A majority also thought that life extension of this kind was bad for society.
This is baffling. During the last century, average life expectancy grew by several decades – and no one seemed to protest. Why would people think that repeating this feat is a bad idea both for society and for them personally?
On one hand, people as individuals and humanity as a whole consider death a tragedy and try to avoid it. Innumerable resources are spent on keeping people alive for as long as possible, be it via seatbelts or cancer therapies. However, the same idea framed as “life extension” is seen as dubious, calamitous, and even nefarious. It is likely that the way life extension is portrayed in mass culture has something to do with this. Way too often, Hollywood chooses to scare rather than to inspire, because fear and simplistic tropes sell well.
However, this misrepresentation has real-life consequences. Moviegoers are also voters. Stem cell research was stifled in the US for years for political reasons, and while some concerns about genetically modified organisms might be justified, it is becoming increasingly clear that impeding research into genetically modified organisms does more harm than good. Both of those scientific fields can save millions of people from death and suffering, but their potential pales in comparison with that of geroscience.
For millennia, humanity could not even come close to conquering age-related diseases, so life extension remained the stuff of myths and legends. Another piece of ancient writing comes to mind: Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, where the fox, being unable to reach the high-hanging grapes despite much trying, walks away declaring that he wasn’t into those sour grapes anyway.
In the same way, fear of death probably pushes people into embracing it and distancing themselves from those who attempt to rebel against “the ways of God and nature”. Art has always been happy to pluck those strings.
We are not the villains
Today, however, when scientists are finally on the cusp of actually slowing, if not defeating, aging, such attitudes seem outdated, unwarranted, and outright harmful. Thankfully, the tide is turning, and Avatar: The Way of Water might be one of the last movies to use life extension as a scarecrow. Some others, including other Disney content such as Thor and the Eternals, already abandon this trope in favor of a more positive vision of life extension.
We have arrived at a point where geroscience is ready to spread its wings, but it needs society to stand behind it. Significant lifespan extension raises serious questions, and it’s possible to have books and movies that thoughtfully discuss the relevant challenges while remaining scientifically sound. There is much to say about how life extension would affect the fabric of our society and how to ensure equal distribution of future life-extending therapies, which are certainly going to be addressed similarly to, and have the same challenges as, other medical interventions.
However, mad scientists, malicious billionaires, and greedy whalers squeezing magical anti-aging liquid from a giant alien’s brain? Give me a break. Yes, moviemakers need villains, but they should choose their villains more carefully. The arts have a long history of reinforcing harmful stereotypes about sex, race, and culture. Let’s not do that to people working towards healthier, longer lives.