The real story of ‘The Old Guard’

Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you intend to watch The Old Guard but haven’t done so yet.

The Old Guard, an action film starring Charlize Theron among others, released on Netflix on July 10. In a scene in the film, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivers two undying men to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (Harry Melling) only to watch the CEO, demanding that their proof of immortality be “indisputable”, stab them to death and then watch their wounds heal. After he’s had his fill, the CEO orders the men to be taken away to a lab for ‘tests’. Before he leaves the room, Copley walks up to the CEO and attempts to remind him that “this” – referring to their arrangement, pursuant to the CEO’s stated intention to mine the immortals’ genetic material for life-saving drugs – “is about science, not profits or sadism”.

The Old Guard has received good reviews, as you might know if you’ve already watched it, but perhaps the film’s entire story could have been non-existent were it not for Copley’s naïve beliefs, no?

At another point in the film, Copley talks about entering into his deal with Merrick, the CEO, because Copley’s wife’s death of ALS taught him that genetic gifts that could alleviate “needless suffering” should be shared with humanity, not hoarded by a few. A noble sentiment – and I almost fell for it until being jolted back by another character, who reminds Copley that the gift wasn’t his to give. In The Old Guard, it’s four white people who have been forced to give, but the argument is strengthened by the fact that it’s an apt metaphor for the real world, in which it’s often the people of the developing world, and in that world the most marginalised, doing the ‘giving’.

In effect, the film’s story is about Copley’s mistake and Copley fixing that mistake – except the mistake doesn’t seem defensible to me as much as it must have been born out of a long-standing ignorance of a bunch of issues, from self-determination to science’s need to be guided by politics. When Copley tells Merrick that “this is about science, not profits”, I laughed out loud, and my scalding hot tea poured out through my nose when he added “or sadism”. What kind of person arranges to violently capture four people who really don’t wish to be caught, puts them in chains, and brings them to a pharma company believing it’s neither for “profits” nor “sadism”?

Even more broadly, when has science ever not been for sadism or profits? Vast swathes of modern science as we know it – since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry into consciousness in those moments of the science-military nexus, exemplified by the apoliticism of Enrico Fermi that, in the final analysis, had deeply political ramifications – have been for profits and power, if not directly sadism.

Modern medicine is not at all free of pain either. Even within the limited view of physical violence, drug trial protocols require a set of preclinical trials to be conducted in ‘animal models’, and many researchers who work with animals also grapple with mental health issues, for example in the form of compassion fatigue. Only in this decade or so have we begun to grow organs in the lab or virtual environments in computers to simulate the actions of different drugs, and even these solutions are eons away from entering regular practice. And then there’s the brutal history of medical and psychological experimentation that, at various points in time, overlapped disturbingly neatly with the day’s most significant human rights abuses.

If we considered violence of other forms as well – including but not limited to rationalists who wield ‘science’ to delegitimise non-scientific ways to organise and make sense of the world and to terrorise the followers of other traditions; to the West, which, “rather than improve conditions of work where necessary, or make a provision for proper career structures where they are lacking so as to attract local graduates, … has found it simpler and less expensive to import foreign doctors to work under conditions which locally trained doctors would not accept” (source); to even imperialist trade agreements that suppress local enterprise in favour of foreign imports – neither medicine nor the institutions responsible for its development are at all free of violence.

This said, I’m not railing against Copley here as much as his writers, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. Even considered in toto, The Old Guard affords Copley the resolution of his moral crisis by facilitating the rescue of the ‘caged’ immortals – but in so doing legitimises the separation of scientific practice from cruelty and abuse. But as history has revealed on multiple occasions, science as so many of us would like it to be is so frequently not what it actually is. As a human enterprise, it’s dirty, fraught and contested. Most of all – likely to the chagrin of those who still believe there can be a functional line between science and politics that wouldn’t be to science’s detriment – it is negotiated. And the more we persist in our efforts to install the scientific enterprise on a pedestal, as being even if only in idea to be untainted by social and cultural considerations, the more we diminish its influence on society, the more we overlook its use unto oppressive ends and thus the more we empower those who do so.

Instead, what Copley should really have done after being contacted is deduce preemptively that Merrick is cruel and therefore Merrick’s practice of science is bound to be cruel, sign the contract (to keep the deal from going to someone else) and then stealthily undermine Merrick’s plans while also protecting the immortals. Then, once Merrick has been killed off (in order to make it a good action film), the immortals volunteer to have their genomes sequenced and the corresponding results uploaded onto a preprint server, and then recall all their time on this good Earth to write anecdotally well-supplied books about the real history of science.