POST #9 <br> To Age or Not to Age: Thoughts on the film “Paradise”

Paradise, a new movie on Netflix, presents a rather intriguing storyline. Set in the future, scientists have discovered how to safely extract a designated amount of lifespan from one person and give it to another person—for a price. All that is needed is to find a match, a donor whose DNA will be accepted by the donee. (Movies set in the future have an immediate advantage. They do not have to spend much time and effort to validate their plausibility; they can simply take a far-out idea and run with it.)

Despite this implausible premise, Paradise starts out as a well-made film. The acting, the dialogue, the pacing are all excellent. The film centers on a young married couple. The husband works for the huge biotech company that, having developed the technology for partial lifespan extraction, is now marketing the sale of these partial lifespans. He is a persuasive and ethical salesperson, always spelling out the pros and cons of the decision to give up part of one’s lifespan–usually in exchange for a way out of poverty. The couple’s life together is full of promise, and they look forward to having children. Then, a sudden tragedy hits them. Their residence, which they purchased with an outsized loan based on expected revenue from the husband’s career, catches fire and is destroyed. The insurance company is able to prove negligence on their part and will not pay for the loss. We then learn that the wife had conditionally sold 40 years of her lifespan as collateral for the outsized loan—something she did not tell her husband. The sale of her lifespan is legally binding and enforceable.

Her husband pleads for help from the founder of the biotech company, but there is nothing that can be done. His wife is forced to undergo the process of harvesting 38 years of her lifespan. As she slowly recovers from the procedure, she visibly ages. Her body is now suddenly 38 years older. The effects of her rapid aging is devastating to the couple’s relationship. Her husband professes that her sudden aging makes no difference to him. “I still love you,” he says. But the wife cannot so easily accept their relationship now that a 38-year age gap separates them. “We wanted to watch our kids grow up together; we wanted to grow old together,” she says.

By now we are one-third of the way into the film, and we are wondering how the couple might be able to resolve this sudden and stark change in their relationship. I wish the film had stayed with this track, but it does not. It quickly devolves into an overtly dramatic action film when the husband decides that the only way he can fix things is to kidnap the biotech company’s founder—who we now learn is the recipient of his wife’s 38 years—and bring her to a neighboring country where he has arranged for the same life harvesting procedure to be performed on her and the years given back to his wife. If this were not enough, the film also brings on board a radical social justice group that uses murderous terrorism as a way to thwart the biotech company’s partial life harvesting. From here on, the film descends into all the familiar aspects of an action flick, and guns blaze aplenty in the finale.

Despite the disappointing last two-thirds of the film, you might want to watch the first 40 minutes just to get in touch with the ethical and emotional issues that come to the fore. Some of the ethical issues surrounding the idea of life extension are already being debated within the gerontology field. Paradise simply extends the scenario of “what if we find a way to radically extend the human lifespan?”

The film may also lead you to ponder a broader and deeper issue. Throughout the development of human society, extraction has been used again and again as a way to live and thrive. Humans learned not only how to extract things from the earth, but also how to extract labor from slaves or underpaid workers. These extractions often serve to widen the gap between those who have little power and control and those who already have more wealth than they need. The extraction of life-years portrayed in Paradise represents the pinnacle of such societally sanctioned behavior.

Paradise? I have no idea how this film got its title—unless the promise of an ever-extended lifespan on this earth is somehow equated with paradise?

Ironically, in the background of some of the film’s city scenes, viewers get occasional glimpses of a huge electronic billboard that reads, “Stop Ageism. Are the creators of this film asking viewers to consider that the ultimate antidote to ageism is to stop aging? Or perhaps they are in on the irony: Ageism is what fuels the idea of extracting years from the life of the already disadvantaged and adding them to the life of the powerful.

– Jim Vanden Bosch