In an effort to disconnect from the craziness of life, I recently watched “The Old Guard,” a popular 2020 Netflix movie. [Note: spoiler alerts ahead.] It tells the story of four “immortals,” led by Andromache of Scythia (also known as “Andy,” portrayed by Charlize Theron), and the ups and downs of their existence.
As we are introduced to each of the immortals, we find that they were born in different centuries and have been alive for a very long time. The bulk of their time seems to be participating in battles that have taken place throughout history (e.g., The Crusades, the Napoleonic era, etc.). It’s not clear from the movie that they were always immortal, but each one finds out quickly after sustaining a deadly wound and suddenly come back to life. A fifth immortal, Marine officer Nile Freeman (portrayed by KiKi Layne) is introduced in a graphic scene where her neck is violently slashed and she is basically dead, but remarkably, she heals without explanation and without scars. Within a few scenes, Andy takes Nile taken from her military camp and has introduced her to the team of immortals.
Obviously, there are some big questions here that we hear the immortals ask throughout the movie: “Why me, why am I immortal and others are not?” Or, “What are we supposed to be doing with this ‘immortality’?” “Are we making any difference in a world that seems like it is getting worse instead of better?” By the end of the story, the viewer gets an idea about the difference that the immortals have made throughout the years, but the “why” question remains unanswered. Andy is a confirmed atheist and views Nile’s faith in God as illogical.
More ethical issues arise when Big Pharma gets involved. The villain of the movie, Steven Merrick (portrayed by Harry Melling) is the young Zuckerberg-esque head of his own pharmaceutical company. He enlists help from a former CIA agent, James Copley (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture the immortals and to run a series of endless tests on them. As you might expect, the immortals are eventually captured and meet Merrick face to face. He informs them that it is their duty to submit to his torturous experimentation because in the long run, they will help humanity. He goes so far as to tell the heroes that it is ethical duty to do this because they could help so many people.
Copley’s ruthlessness clearly tells the viewer that his ethics are problematic. He is not simply an altruistic scientist, he is an entrepreneur who wants to ensure that the immortals do not fall into the hands of his Big Pharma competitors. His words about helping humanity ring hollow because of his overall devotion to the bottom line. Or as he was told at the end of the movie, “It was not your choice to make.”
“The Old Guard” is a cautionary tale cloaked in the garb of a twenty-first century Netflix feature with all the special effects one might hope for. Humanity never seems to learn their lesson; technology always seems to have a leg up on ethics. In our fast-paced world, a cautionary tale may be just the thing we need.