For anyone reading from elsewhere, the current UK film certification gradient goes something like this: we begin with the U rating, indicating a film is universally suitable, then progress upwards to the headier heights of the PG (Parental Guidance indicated), then the 12, 15, and 18 age-related certifications. Beyond here lies only the rare and dubious R18, normally found only in films with restricted audiences displayed in private gentlemen’s establishments. I don’t keep track of how my own viewing scores, but I suspect it averages out somewhere between 12 and 15 – I probably watch more 18-rated films than Us, but then again it’s quite rare to find a proper U film these days which isn’t specifically aimed at young children.
However, I had a flutter of excitement the other day as I found myself watching a film which was not on the main ratings scheme at all, and had managed to snag the unusual E certificate, indicating a film which is primarily educational in nature. Quite where the line falls between an informative documentary and an actual education film, I don’t know, but Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity shows enough style and artiness for me to suspect that a fast one of some kind has been pulled.
(This is not the Michael Madsen of Reservoir Dogs infamy, by the way: this Michael Madsen is a Danish film-maker who appears to have the curious parallel interests of nuclear radiation and theoretical semantics.)
Into Eternity is a concise examination of the Onkalo storage facility in Finland, a still-under-construction repository for dangerously radioactive waste from the country’s nuclear industry. The film goes through the logic behind Onkalo’s construction very straightforwardly – nuclear waste can be lethal, and needs to be carefully managed; the current system where it is ‘actively’ maintained in cooled water tanks is not a viable long-term solution; and so it is necessary to create a place (as stable a place as possible) where it can be safely deposited in years to come.
And the years to come will be fairly numerous. Nuclear waste has a half-life of about 100,000 years, and so Onkalo will have to survive intact for that long. To put this into perspective, the oldest pyramids of Egypt are about 4,500 years old, while the oldest cave paintings thus found in Europe date back only about 32,000 years. The time scales involved are difficult to comprehend – at one point someone working on the project casually mentions that most scientists agree that we’re due the start of another Ice Age before Onkalo’s lethal cargo becomes safe.
The film doesn’t focus that much on the engineering or architectural challenges of the project, instead choosing to concentrate on the consequences of the immense span of time involved. Madsen chooses to make the film with the conceit that it is actually a message from our own epoch to that of the very distant future – ‘I am speaking to you from a place where you should never come’ is practically the first line of the film, and he briefly speculates as to the nature of the civilisation he is addressing.
The key question arising from this is exactly how to warn the people of the future of the dangers lying in the Onkalo vaults? Given that languages and cultures are likely to change beyond all recognition in the space of a hundred millennia, how can we expect to leave a sufficiently urgent ‘KEEP CLEAR’ message? Another school of thought suggests that the site of the repository be left unmarked in the hope that it is forgotten entirely – the suggestion being that any kind of surface monument could potentially be misinterpreted that something of value, such as a tomb, lies here.
It’s a fascinating, if necessarily unresolved question. Finnish law has apparently addressed the issue of the safety of future generations, but even they seem to recoil from thinking more than a few decades in advance. Then again, implicit throughout the film is the suggestion that our civilisation is spectacularly bad at long-term planning as a whole.
Into Eternity pointedly avoids coming across as an anti-nuclear power movie – as one contributor observes, whether you’re pro- or anti-, you have to agree that it’s our responsibility to deal with the waste. The fact remains, though it’s not stated as such in the film, that the relics of our civilisation most likely to still be around in 100,000 years are (as things currently stand) a few landers on the Moon and Mars, and our accumulated, highly toxic nuclear waste. What will our remote descendants make of us, based on this legacy?
Again, it’s something implicit in the film, but still an inescapable question. Madsen assembles his film with sufficient skill and delicacy to pose it without seeming to be hectoring or even particularly political. As a piece of film-making, it’s impressive, as is the willingness of the project to address such unusual philosophical issues. Our civilisation frequently shows signs of a tendency to forget the lessons of the past; but we show very little sign at all of thinking about the future in any but the most immediate sense. Into Eternity at least attempts to redress this a tiny bit.