What is our legacy on Earth? What will we leave behind for our descendents? According to Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen's Into Eternity, 300,000 tons of life-killing nuclear waste. Sounds dire, yes? But, as his spooky, hypnotically gorgeous documentary points out, Finland has a plan.
Onkalo is the name of the country's ambitious and awe-inspiring nuclear waste facility, an underground city-sized complex that'll take until 2120 to complete. Built into solid and stable bedrock miles beneath the Earth's surface, it has been conceived of as a passive system where a century of waste will be collected before being sealed off forever. Nuclear waste takes 100,000 years to degrade and so a lot of thought has been given as to how they responsibly and effectively handle this Pandora's Box of energy.
But far from the typical doom and gloom documentaries that warn us of the Earth's imminent demise, Madsen's honest, arty and thought-provoking examination is almost Kubrickian in its ability to immerse the viewer in an alternate reality of sound, sight and thought. At times it feels like a dreamy, existential sci-fi flick, building tension through mood and atmosphere. Leading us on an incredible tour of the vast timelessness of the underground caverns and tunnels, Madsen makes palpable the immenseness of our choices and their endless implications, challenging us to contemplate the moral, scientific and philosophical issues at stake.
Scientists, academics and construction workers weigh in on the logistical and ethical complications as they struggle and fail to answer many of Madsen's weightier questions. From time to time, the director appears by matchlight, reciting storybook warnings, as if we were intruders from the future, journeying into a dangerous and forbidden place.
You see, as visionary and well-meaning as Onkalo is, the question arises: How do we communicate with civilizations in the distant future? After all, we still struggle to understand the mysteries of the pyramids and societies far less ancient than we will be to our descendents. How do we properly warn distant generations of the planet-destroying waste that's buried beneath their feet. Academics struggle to conceive of markers that might communicate the dangers, but worry that curiosity-seekers will ignore them the same way we dismiss legends of curses and monsters. Some suggest that the site simply be forgotten, with no sign of Onkalo left on the "unstable" surface. As one scientist points out, the 20th century alone saw two world wars, massive economic upheavals, catastrophic environmental disasters and the rise of global terrorism.
Where Madsen's 75-minute film stumbles is in the repetition of its themes and its inability to broaden the topic to a more global perspective. Finland's commitment only addresses a fraction of the waste being generated worldwide, and one can't help but wonder why the United States and other European countries haven't embarked on similar efforts.
"We need to remember forever to forget," Madsen's voiceover intones. "Permanent is too strong a word," a talking head official admits. Somewhere between the two spells mankind's salvation — or its doom. Despite some minor shortcomings, Into Eternity does a terrific job of getting its audience to contemplate both.
Screens at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 17-18, at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 19, and at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, June 26, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.