As storytellers are fond of reminding us, living forever usually only sounds awesome until you try it. This list includes only movie characters who were born human and then somehow became immortal—that’s why there aren’t any gods, unless Phil Connors counts—and then realized how long eternity really, truly is.
When Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) first got the chance to live forever, the idea sounded pretty sweet. Now, centuries later, he’s fond of saying things like “immortality is a bloody curse” and “everlasting life, everlasting torment.” Of course, his immortality came about after he won a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits)—a bet that he later came to realize was rigged, by the way—and “Mr. Nick” has been popping up periodically throughout his endless life, taunting him with new wagers to make his own eternal existence more amusing.
By the time of the events of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—Terry Gilliam’s 2009 surreal fantasy, most remembered as the film Heath Ledger was in the middle of making when he died—the ancient Doc, who’s been using his psychic talents as an old-timey carnival performer in contemporary London, is rather regretting the temporary restoration of his youth some years prior. Wooing his now-deceased dream girl was worth it, but the bill for that bargain has come due, and it involves giving Mr. Nick his beloved daughter (Lily Cole) when she turns 16. Most of the movie revolves around Parnassus trying to win a new bet that’ll spare her soul before her birthday, with the help/hindrance of the other characters, and learning to let the girl be free to enjoy her own life. But his own immortality, something he’s long since grown desperately weary of, is never up for renegotiation.
After a near-death experience in 1937, an elegant San Francisco woman named Adaline (Blake Lively) finds herself “immune to the ravages of time.” Things start to get awkward a decade later when her youthful face doesn’t match up to the birthday on her driver’s license; then her own daughter, born before the accident, starts to look older than she is. Things get dangerous when the Cold War-era government takes an interest in her curious condition, so Adaline resigns herself to a life of ever-changing identities to protect her secret—fretting as her daughter (Ellen Burstyn) contemplates moving to a retirement community, and slamming the brakes when she falls for a persistent suitor (The Haunting of Hill House’s Michiel Huisman) who only looks age-appropriate.
We soon learn that it’s not the first time she’s opened her heart against her better judgment, and the tender mistakes of her past come back to haunt her halfway through the movie thanks to a coincidence only a movie script could cook up. Though its main character isn’t technically immortal (incapable of aging, yes; incapable of dying, however briefly, mayyyybe not?), The Age of Adaline’s main purpose is to demonstrate the emotional toll of living a life that never ends—particularly as it affects a lonely but otherwise ordinary person, quietly contemplating an extraordinary predicament she alone can truly understand.
Of course, it doesn’t all suck; as The Age of Adaline definitively demonstrates, living a long-ass life means you can whip any and all opponents at Trivial Pursuit.
Truth be told, none of the Tucks really relish being immortal—it’s something the family’s been saddled with since unknowingly drinking from the Fountain of Youth, some 90 years prior to the start of this Disney film based on Natalie Babbitt’s classic children’s novel. But while father Angus Tuck (William Hurt) has a world-weary view of things (“what we Tucks have, you can’t call it living. We just are... we’re like rocks stuck at the side of the stream” he explains at one point), and younger son Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) is still earnest enough to fall in love, older son Miles (Scott Bairstow) is somewhere between bitter and furious about his eternal fate.
He has good reason to be surly; some years prior, he’d optimistically started a family of his own, only to see his wife express horror upon learning his secret—a sentiment echoed by their fearful frontier community, who accuse the Tucks of practicing black magic after noticing they’re able to miraculously heal from any injury. After Miles’ wife left him, taking their kids, he volunteered for military service, surviving Gettysburg as thousands of soldiers died around him. His wife, he later learned, died alone in an asylum. “But I’m still here...I’m still here,” he says sadly. And, as Tuck Everlasting certainly suggests, he and the other Tucks always will be.
Truth be told, this entire list could be filled with angsty vampires who’re simply bored of eternity—think Tom Hiddleston’s undead rock n’ roller in Only Lovers Left Alive, or the What We Do in the Shadows roommates, who turn to mundane mischief to pass the time. But Interview With the Vampire’s Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) unwittingly ascended to immortal status as a tween, dooming her to a life of being treated like a child—don’t you dare give her another doll!—when in fact she’s a full-on adult (and a pleasure-seeking, vampire-type adult at that), trapped in the body of a frilly little princess.
What’s a furious 40-year-old-who-looks-10 to do? Attempt to murder ol’ vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise), the jerk who transformed her in the first place, a failed scheme that ends up sealing her own demise when a group of other bloodsuckers intuits what she’s done. Claudia’s shrieking, smoldering death-by-sunlight is maybe the movie’s most horrific scene, but there’s a certain amount of catharsis involved too.
The immediate associations that come to mind with 1974 oddity Zardoz are, of course, “floating stone head” and “Sean Connery in an orange loincloth.” But beyond those memorable visuals, Zardoz also shows us a futuristic world where humans are either mortal “Brutals” or immortal “Eternals,” the latter of whom dwell in a sealed-off, idyllic “Vortex” and derive their power from an AI called “the Tabernacle”—including the ability to regenerate if they do (briefly) die. But endless life in the Vortex is hardly a paradise for these people, so when Connery’s Brutal character bursts in, the disruption is met with amusement by most of the population, who are generally bored as hell (some of whom to the point of being near-catatonic “Apathetics”).
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Zardoz’s Eternal ennui is the character known as Friend (John Alderton), who calls Zed “monster” but takes a liking to him. After Friend explains to Zed that anyone who misbehaves is punished with aging, his rueful reveal that “they make you old... but they don’t let you die” comes back around when he’s sentenced to live among the “Renegades,” outcasts who are forced to live as doddering elders, woefully longing for an end that the Tabernacle will never allow.
Robert Zemeckis’ 1992 camp classic—a singular blend of black comedy and body horror—introduces us to “Mad” (Meryl Streep) and “Hel” (Goldie Hawn), whose romantic rivalry over a schlubby plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis) turns deadly, at least temporarily. Since both women are obsessed with looking younger, they’re coincidentally both clients of a Beverly Hills socialite/sorceress (Isabella Rossellini) who proffers a potion that reverses aging...and bestows eternal life.
This fantastically enhanced vanity proves both blessing and curse, though it’s mostly a curse after Mad tumbles down her mansion’s towering staircase, and Hel takes a shotgun blast to the gut. Though the women look and act alive, they’re very much dead—glamorous zombies who’re forced to keep their decaying bodies under constant maintenance. The one good thing to come out of their shared predicament is that the former frenemies realize how much they really need each other because someone’s gotta be around to touch up the corpsepaint in all the hard-to-reach places for all eternity.
In which an international cabal of immortals hunt each other through the ages, spurred by the knowledge that whoever beheads everyone else will claim the “Prize,” becoming an even more supreme being with godlike powers over the entire human race. At least they can die, in a sense—but there’s no closure for main character Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), who has to make sure he outlasts his greatest enemy, the Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who would use the “Prize” for pure evil.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot going on in Highlander. Pick your favorites! Mine are Sean Connery’s flamboyant turn as Connor’s immortal mentor; the energetic Queen soundtrack; and Roxanne Hart as Connor’s contemporary love interest, Brenda, who could be one of the very first female forensic pathologist characters ever to appear on the big screen. But Connor’s long journey—from seemingly ordinary warrior dude in 16th century Scotland to eternal antiques dealer skulking around 1985 Manhattan—is the through line, and it is rarely a joyful one.
As churlish weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is forced to learn, living the same day over and over in a loop that’s seemingly designed to highlight all of your faults is a truly exquisite hell. Even repeated suicides don’t prevent him from waking up in the same bed on the same frigid morning, and he eventually comes to accept that he’ll be doing this forever. (“I’m a god,” he explains to his co-worker, who understandably thinks he’s nuts, “I’m not the god... I don’t think.”)
Fortunately for Phil, whatever forces that have singled him out for self-improvement are finally satisfied by his progress enough to unstick him from the time stream—and while Groundhog Day is obviously a comedy that plays into the universal desire for a do-over every once in awhile, as well as the opportunity to indulge some bad behavior without any consequences, it also shows us the dark places Phil’s existential meltdown ends up taking him along the way.
Immortality is generally a highly desirable trait for a superhero; it comes in handy when battling bad guys and/or cancer, as the case may be. But not being able to die becomes Wade Wilson’s (Ryan Reynolds) biggest nightmare very early in Deadpool 2, when his beloved Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is killed by a stray bullet after a gangster—someone that Wade was supposed to have assassinated earlier that day—interrupts their anniversary celebration. He blames himself on every level for her death, but his superpower prevents him from joining her in the afterlife, even after he blows himself to bits.
Deadpool 2 plays it for laughs, of course, but the jokey mercenary’s agony is still palpable. Thank goodness for Colossus (who dutifully gathers up all of Deadpool’s pulverized body parts so that he can heal), but mostly thank goodness for comic-book magic—which not only ensures the danger-prone Wade survives the movie but manages to figure out a way to bring back the non-superpowered Vanessa, too.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.