Into Eternity Dir. Michael Madsen

[Magic Hour Films; 2010]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Nuclear Impasse, Deadly Secret

We have turned the Earth into a bomb. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for 100,000 years, and we have no good way of storing it. The Finnish government has decided to build a longterm subterranean storage facility called Onkalo, which apparently literally means “cavern” but which Madsen says means “hiding place.” A great subject for a documentary, right? Unfortunately, Into Eternity is a rather boring film.

Aside from gorgeous shots of a couple laborers blasting tunnels deep under the placid, frozen landscape of northern Finland (of which there are also several gorgeous shots), the camera mostly fixes several well-spoken-enough but otherwise dull officials. These interviews are punctuated by occasional monologues performed by Madsen himself while he holds a burning match. It’s very metaphorical, very heavy-handed.

That describes the substance of the film’s failure. At a reasonable 75 minutes, it manages to be both too direct and too understated: what it lacks in philosophical depth and nuance it makes up in misguided direction. Which isn’t to say the film isn’t worth watching; what’s most interesting is its formal conceit, that it’s a document intended for a future audience. The film and its actors address themselves to the very same questions raised regarding the future of Onkalo, namely whether future generations or civilizations will understand the purpose or nature of Onkalo after it has been forgotten, after its records have been lost, after our contemporary languages and cultures have been obliterated or utterly transformed. Those same peoples would not understand Into Eternity, even if they were to find it.

As you can see, the situation is patently absurd. Just as there’s no totally reliable method of securing Onkalo from future human intrusion (accidental, archaeological, remedial, capitalistic, etc.) — erasing it is seemingly preferable to any sort of representational, linguistic, or atmospheric/sculptural signage — so too is it vain to hope that the form and content and intentions of this film could mean anything beyond a given distance from its historical moment. Which makes even more absurd and endearing the curious detail that the names of the onscreen personalities are accompanied by signatures. Authored for what posterity? More amusing still, what might far-future anthropologists infer about 21st-century English language from listening to the idiosyncratic speeches of Finns?

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