'Into Eternity': Nuclear's Future, With Or Without Us

Michael Madsen

Dark Matters: Filmmaker Michael Madsen considers the functional and conceptual challenges of Onkalo, a permanent nuclear waste store in Finland — chiefly, how to prevent future civilizations from breaking in before the waste decays. International Film Circuit hide caption

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Into Eternity

  • Director: Michael Madsen
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 75 minutes

Not yet rated. Ominous themes

With: Michael Madsen

(Recommended)

Illuminated only by the burning match he holds in his fingers, a man speaks directly to the camera. But he's not talking to you. He's addressing people of the future, perhaps 100,000 years from now. "We have buried something from you," he says, "to protect you.''

The man is Danish artist and filmmaker Michael Madsen (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor). The location is a tunnel, under construction deep in Finnish bedrock. And the something that will be buried — that event, too, is in the future — is radioactive waste.

Into Eternity is a documentary about a massive crypt called Onkalo (Finnish for "hiding place"), the world's first permanent underground vault for nuclear detritus. The movie considers the practical problems of burying the deadly stuff so effectively that it won't be disturbed during the hundreds of centuries necessary for it to decay. But because the time frame is so long — far longer than recorded human history — these problems become philosophical, even mystical.

"The world above ground is unstable," says one of the many Scandinavian scientists Madsen interviewed for the film. (All of them speak good English, although there are subtitles, just in case.) So the waste will be secured in a kind of tomb, the entrance sealed and hidden.

But human explorers are driven to raid tombs, and perhaps some earthlings of the future will be similarly interested in digging up old things. "We consider you the main threat to the future of Onkalo," warns Madsen, in one of his brief speeches to the creatures of tomorrow.

A technician at Onkalo, a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland i

Construction at Onkalo is expected to finish within 10 years. Nuclear technicians hope the underground vault will solve Finland's radioactive-waste problems for at least a century. International Film Circuit hide caption

itoggle caption International Film Circuit
A technician at Onkalo, a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland

Construction at Onkalo is expected to finish within 10 years. Nuclear technicians hope the underground vault will solve Finland's radioactive-waste problems for at least a century.

International Film Circuit

The facility's planners are still debating how to designate the site, or whether to designate it at all. The discussion ranges from musings reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld ("We don't know what we don't know") to phrases that might be from a conceptual art project (Onkalo "has to be fully passive" and "independent of human nature," and its inheritors must be taught "to remember forever to forget").

The conceptual aspects of the project clearly fascinate Madsen. Into Eternity doesn't take a position on nuclear power, and it expresses no outrage that humans have created byproducts that will be so dangerous for so long. Scientists discuss the risks and acknowledge that Onkalo won't contain even all of Finland's nuke waste — to say nothing of any other country's. What animates the film is the otherworldliness of the under-construction project and the paradoxes the finished Onkalo will embody.

Visually, Madsen emphasizes the strangeness of it all with stately tracking shots of the tunnels, ghostly images of workers and occasional glimpses of the peacefulness above, where a few caribou roam a seemingly pristine forest. The film's sonic design is subtle yet vivid, alternating natural sounds with the elegiac music of Sibelius, Arvo Part and Philip Glass. (There's also a bit of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity," just for fun.)

Some viewers may be put off by Madsen's artiness or by the film's solemnity. Yet Into Eternity and its subject justify the tone. After all, if Onkalo succeeds, it will become the longest-lasting product of contemporary civilization — which it might very well outlive.

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