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REVIEW | With "Into Eternity," Michael Madsen Ponders the Future of Nuclear Waste

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 3, 2011 at 3:25AM

A haunting nonfiction elegy about the threat of the apocalypse, Michael Madsen’s “Into Eternity” explores the horrors of anticipating an unpredictable future. Madsen delves into the perilous crevices of Onkalo (which translates as “hiding place”), an ominous cave in Finland tasked with the permanent storage of nuclear waste. Since Onkalo must last 100,000 years, so too must the warnings that its contents are left undisturbed. Madsen focuses on the challenges of the latter task by continually addressing an imaginary audience watching the movie several centuries from now. He delivers the threatening dispatch in an unlikely hybrid of science-fiction and documentary, drenching each moment in otherworldly creepiness.
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A haunting nonfiction elegy about the threat of the apocalypse, Michael Madsen’s “Into Eternity” explores the horrors of anticipating an unpredictable future. Madsen delves into the perilous crevices of Onkalo (which translates as “hiding place”), an ominous cave in Finland tasked with the permanent storage of nuclear waste. Since Onkalo must last 100,000 years, so too must the warnings that its contents are left undisturbed. Madsen focuses on the challenges of the latter task by continually addressing an imaginary audience watching the movie several centuries from now. He delivers the threatening dispatch in an unlikely hybrid of science-fiction and documentary, drenching each moment in otherworldly creepiness.

A vast, tube-like apparatus stretching 500 meters below the surface (“It’s like a big city underground,” says one researcher), Onkalo has a technologically strange design bound to confuse contemporary laypeople, which makes the prospects of later generations grasping its dangers even less tangible. Due to be sealed with concrete in 2100, the repository faces any number of unwanted guests, from curious explorers to glacial pressures from the next ice age. Onkalo’s employees pontificate about the challenges of providing a universal message to people with unknown linguistic standards. Since nothing is certain, their suggestions range from purely abstract (a massive grouping of thorny structures) to comical (Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”).

Exploring these possibilities, Madsen assumes a disquieting, morbidly lyrical approach. When not focused on a half-dozen talking heads, his camera probes the depths of Onkalo and the cryptic machinery within it. The director provides an eerie voiceover, presenting himself as the era’s self-appointed guide. Eschewing scientific details for more cosmic observations, he dwells in Onkalo’s dreary atmosphere. In his most effective cinematic flourish, he stands in front of the camera, surrounded by darkness—his face illuminated by a single match—and describes the cave as “a hiding place for the fire to burn into eternity.”

The aforementioned scene recalls a similar moment in Josh Fox’s recently Oscar-nominated “Gasland,” an exposé on gas drilling in which the filmmaker plays his banjo for the audience while wearing a gas mask. In both movies, the first-person approach intensifies the underlying activism. Rather than explaining the pitfalls of Onkalo in terms of cold logic, Madsen reaches his goal with 75 minutes of conceptual intrigue.

An inverse of Werner Herzog’s upcoming “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which envisions the motives of long-forgotten cave painters, “Into Eternity” ponders the behavior of a shadowy populace before it exists. Madsen lets his images speak louder than words, setting footage of neon-clad workers burrowing through the cave to a mystical soundtrack as if paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like Kubrick’s monolith, the unearthly powers of Onkalo exist beyond the realm of human understanding—or at least they will in years to come.

Although Madsen’s survey of warning strategies has an aimless structure prone to repetition, he creates an effective mood that transcends his time-travel gimmick and eventually becomes topical. A concluding segment finds him asking scientists to address the future. “Take better care of the world than we did,” one of them says, a plea aimed at present-day audiences as much as anyone else.

HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Into Eternity" was well-received during its travels on the festival circuit last year, and should receive a similarly enthusiastic response from New York audiences (driven by strong reviews and word-of-mouth) when it opens at Film Forum on Friday. Beyond that, it has solid prospects on DVD.

criticWIRE grade: A-

This article is related to: In Theaters, Into Eternity