In Finland a huge system of underground tunnels is being hewn out of solid bedrock in the first attempt ever at a permanent storage for nuclear waste. The radioactive waste must remain isolated from all living organisms for at least 100 000 years. Once full, the facility will be sealed off, never to be opened again. Or so we hope...
Perhaps the ultimate underground film, Into Eternity (from Finnish visual artist Michael Madsen) provides a fascinating counterpoint to the other cave movie in cinemas at present, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Herzog’s film celebrates the soulful complexities of ancient man, crediting ages both past and present with the ability to use art as a vehicle for unity. Alternatively, Madsen and his array of talking heads try to envision how a population 100,000 years from now would interpret what might be the only surviving legacy of our ancient culture: a deadly tomb, born of staggering construction ingenuity and grand folly, built to house a small but insidious fraction of the world’s nuclear waste.
The tomb is called Onkalo ('place of hiding") and it exists deep within the Finnish forest, 300 kilometres north-west of Helsinki. The world’s only specialised repository for the radioactive by-product of nuclear energy, the state-of-the-art facility plunges 500 metres into prehistoric rock. The facility will continue to be operational until 2100, when it will be sealed off for the duration of the 100,000-year shelf-life of toxic nuclear waste.
Madsen’s ominous work is reminiscent, stylistically, of Kubrick’s masterworks 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) in its visual precision and chilly environs. Despite inhabiting some of the most cramped of physical worlds, he manages to find a philosophical vastness.
The director plies frighteningly unprepared scientists, politicians and philosophers with questions like 'How do we warn future generations as to the dangers that exists here?" and 'How can we presume to know the form/s that language will take in such a distant future?", and punctuates the interviews with slow-motion journeys through the woods surrounding the site juxtaposed with Steadicam shots down the facility’s endless corridors, for added gravitas.
Some might find such overtly cinematic techniques heavy-handed; Madsen attracts such criticism through such indulgences as filming himself by the light of a lit match as he proselytises, direct to camera. Master documentarians such as Errol Morris combine factual content and filmmaking prowess fluidly (Into Eternity’s dreamlike aesthetic often recalls Morris’ landmark 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line); Madsen’s film often teeters on the brink of high-minded pretentiousness.
But if Madsen tries a little too hard to sell his message, his methods in no way detract from the extraordinary facts of the Onkalo project and what its very existence says about the 21st century. The engineers and financiers behind the facility are convinced (or have convinced themselves) that what they are doing is in humankind’s best interest, though they are merely guessing as to how their poisonous subterranean city will help shape the people and planet in the distant future. Madsen has uncovered not only a monumental engineering feat but also a lasting testament to great minds blinded by arrogance; men so enamoured by the notion of doing what they could that they never stopped to ponder whether they should.