Nerd Factor: Immortality Rules

Dr. Michael Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

Immortality is an interesting superpower.  But as a matter of practicality, how does one figure out that one is immortal?  Obviously, one figures it out by not dying.  But there are complicated rules to staying young throughout eternity.  The movie Highlander (1986) offers an interesting solution.  Someone else comes along and teaches you.  

For the unfamiliar, Highlander is one of the most wonderfully 1980s thing to come out of the 1980s.  In fact, it should be sealed in a time capsule as an exemplar of that most marvelous decade.  Directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown, Highlander presents a race of immortals who have sparred throughout history in a contest to leave only one victor.  The movie bounces between contemporary NYC and 16th Century Scotland.  Oh, and there is a soundtrack by Queen.  See, it truly is the 1980s!

In the past, after suffering and surviving a mortal wound in battle with the Kurgan (Brown), Connor MacLeod (Lambert) is living with his love Heather when they are discovered by Ramirez (Connery).  In various training flashbacks, MacLeod learns from Ramirez that immortals can survive any wound save decapitation. Basically these immortals are going around bumping each other off and absorbing their power and knowledge through a process known as the Quickening.  This game is coming to a conclusion in 1980s NYC as MacLeod must once again face the Kurgan.  

As a mentor figure, Ramirez is as roguish as one would expect Connery to be.  Yes, it is weird to cast a real-life Scotsman as an immortal Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard.  But hey, it was the 1980s!  Through a kind of jovial tough love approach, Ramirez schooled MacLeod on the practicalities of his condition, the importance of melee skills and the difficulties of being an immortal in a mortal world.  Survival is tricky when superstitious people notice you’re not aging.  Romance is even harder.

Highlander does not explain everything though.  Like many 1980s movies, we get enough exposition to set up some very characters into flashy fight sequences.  One thing that Ramirez fails to explain is how immortals are at different ages.  MacLeod is explicitly stated to be a 20-year-old when he learns of his immortality.  Ramirez has some graying hair and a few signs of age.  

All of this begs the question—when does immortality set in?  Immortality is, by definition, a lack of aging.  One wonders how anyone born with true immortality develops past birth (or really, even develops in the womb).  Clearly immortality locks in at a certain age.  But when?  Some mutations, like superpowers in Marvel comics, manifest at puberty.  This is a perfect time for a profound biological change to slip in.  But if that’s the case, the immortals should have no age difference.  Or perhaps immortality is not immunity from aging but rather a significantly slower aging process via advanced regenerative mechanisms, à la Wolverine.

My wife had a clever suggestion:  Perhaps immortality locks in at the moment such a person should first die.  In MacLeod’s case, the fatal wound comes when he is a young man, so he will always be a young man.  Ramirez’s injury came later in life, so he will appear old.  I like this idea because it has some wonderfully weird implications.  Ancient mortality rates being what they were, there are probably some creepy immortal children skulking around out there.