Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality

Dir: Patrick Shen, 2003. Documentary.
Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality

This compelling documentary, narrated by Gabriel Byrne, uncovers the bittersweet consequences of our efforts as humans to try to avoid death for the longest time possible. It begins by explaining the phenomena on a more scientific level, touching on animal instincts to survive and pointing out that we are the only species that carries a "burden of anxiety" in terms of our own death. All other animals live only in present danger when confronted by their fears, and we do as well when directly threatened. But unlike other animals, we are aware that we will one day die. Not only do we take precautions avoiding death, but we perform various efforts to try and leave a lasting impression before we go.

Experimental social psychologists Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg are introduced in this documentary, along with several other professors of humanities, ranging from religion to psychoanalysis. Many of them have formed their ideas on "death denial" from the studies done by Ernest Becker, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who worked exclusively on the concept. With these investigations, they have tried to find a way to unravel the positive and negative effects of death denial. You’d be surprised to find out which areas they believe this denial reaches in our subconscious, and what it causes us to do.

The film coasts through graphic, mesmerizing images of death and all the various ceremonies we perform in order to remember the dead and enjoy life. It begins by explaining the obsession past kings and rulers had with finding a literal fountain of youth or with magic elixirs to hold off death. They compare these efforts to the modern day explosion of vitamins, cure-all medicines, and the growing science of plastic surgery and anti-aging technologies. These analysts claim that since we have the power to think abstractly, each culture has come up with a way to deal with their anxiety about death. One of these methods is to try to leave something behind when we go, which can have both negative and positive consequences. They argue that the desires to have children, reach fame, or become wealthy all give human beings a sense of power, or really a means to exert their will over others. This sort of power-play isn’t necessarily harmful, but others have taken it to violent extremes. The documentary has a miraculous way of using this cultural aspect of death denial to explain organized religion and a great many other things, all of which give us a sense of belonging and prevent us from feeling as though we are only decomposing animals destined to expire.

These aspects of culture, including language, religion, and patriotism, have led to ugly reactions from those who are threatened by other "death denying" cultures that are fixated on leaving their mark on the world, too. The documentary uses this negative reaction to explain war, genocide, and even indifference toward the conditions of those who suffer, depending on whether they come from your same religion, nation, etc. The analysts move on to explain that this denial is fed by our imagination, which feeds permanence. We desire things that are durable and have iconic figures, whether fictional or real, who seem as though they could never be defeated. Children, for example, are introduced to superheroes and military personal, or others in a patriotic position of service. They argue that this gave birth to megalomaniacs, many who turn violent and think that they are permanent figures who can uphold their culture on their own terms. Adolf Hitler, for example.

When not professing their knowledge in various colleges across the nation, these analysts conduct tests and surveys of individuals in certain groups, ranging from those in jurisprudence to those of organized religions. The tests show that when the subjects are subconsciously reminded of their own death, they are more aggressive toward those who are not within their group than those who are. The idea behind the test is that if you come from a death denying culture, once confronted with your own death, your denial will momentarily increase, moving from subconscious thought to real action. They’ve coined this idea the "Mortality Salience Hypothesis." Sometimes the effect is miniscule, and other times it is devastating.

While the documentary is extremely fascinating and uses these theories to explain everything from the 9/11 attacks to the inner workings of serial killers, some parts of the theory seem to downplay other factors in life, and this is my only criticism. While we have animal instincts to survive and are hauntingly aware of our own mortality, how are we to give an objective clarification to subjective thought? People have personalities, guilt, intentions, and much more. Using their rhetoric to claim that every achievement and action we do is a form of death denial seems like a hyperbole. However, the documentary does seem to have a lot of convincing points and was extremely fascinating to watch.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 24, 2010 11:49am
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