Nowhere to go.

"The Roman Empire lived, prospered, and died. Similarly, also the West will go through the same kind of phases. Being born, developing, crumbling, and dying. Where will our society be in 300 years? Virtually impossible to say anything. We can imagine society as we know it to exist for 50 years or 100 years. But 300 years', 500 years' time, then the darkness thickens." This strange statement is made by a theologian, Carl Reinhold Brakenhielm, at almost exactly the middle of Into Eternity, a documentary about the current construction of the world's first long-term nuclear waste storage facility, Finland's Onkalo—the Finnish word means "hiding place."

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Onkalo is a work of science fiction. It's not about the present. It's about the deep future. If everything goes as planned, one month in 2120 will contain the last day of work at Onkalo. And at the end of that day, a big decision will be made: Either leave information about what's beyond the entrance—a three-mile tunnel that contains radioactive waste—or place a rock over the entrance and act like it never happened. Out of sight, out of mind. The humans of 2300? They are near enough temporally and mentally for us to communicate the dangers of Onkalo. But 100,000 years from now? What kind of world will that be? If there are humans at all, they might be as different from us as we are from Neanderthals. At 500 years, the darkness thickens. At 100,000 years, there is nothing but darkness.

As the theologian explains the nature of civilizations (Rome is dead; the West is dying), an explanation that owes a lot to the 17th-century Italian historian Vico (father of Hegel, grandfather of Marx), we see in slo-mo a tunnel worker removing his helmet, gear, and overalls. He then walks wearily up a spiral staircase—his apartment is on the top floor. Next, he is in bed, dealing with insomnia. Finally, he sleeps. In sleep, he enters eternity; he is everywhere and nowhere. Through his window: the dawn, the winter clouds, the cold buildings of the Finnish town.

In another scene, we see the ghosts of tunnel workers, entering and exiting the construction site. These are the phantoms of a kind of alienation that no Marxist has ever imagined. Working in a capitalist factory, of course, turns you into a zombie—a body with no brain or sense of self, a body controlled by another force. The capitalist alienates you from you and what you produce. With Onkalo, it's not a person but time, deep time, that alienates you from you. In the way a tool that was familiar to someone in the Stone Age is alien to us, due to the vast length of time, the facility is alien to these men but will be familiar only to someone who is far in the future. They are not present for themselves or their times, but for a world that no one has any clue about. The facility is a bridge to nowhere. The workers who built Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, were zombies; the workers who are digging Onkalo, the greatest monument to time, are ghosts.

Into Eternity is cinema as philosophy. And philosophy is at its best when it's future-thinking ("philosophie der zukunft"), in the way that music is at its best when it's future-sounding ("zukunftsmusik"). The documentary pictures Onkalo as a kind of spaceship. Indeed, its smooth surfaces, computer systems, eccentric scientists, rational managers, and jaded workers bring to mind Ridley Scott's Alien—the difference being that we are not discovering the monster; we are the monster to be discovered. At one point, we watch the operations of the spaceship as we hear Kraftwerk's "sonic fiction" (Kodwo Eshun's term) "Radioactivity."

The director, Michael Madsen, and the experts he interviews are trying to say difficult and impossible things. In the 19th century, this Onkalo would not have presented a philosophical problem. That moment in Europe believed in progress. Humans were getting better and better. History had a direction: forward. History had a motor: spirit, science, class struggle. So 100,000 years from its now, the Victorian now, humans would be "better... stronger... faster." But then came Darwin, Einstein, quantum physics, two massive world wars, and Hiroshima. When the dust cleared, progress was dead. In our day, anyone with a good education is a Gouldian; meaning, we do not see progress in history but a series of accidents.

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The United States has 77,000 tons of nuclear waste on its hands—and for a while, our government decided to make Yucca Mountain in Nevada its Onkalo. Because the future of this solution is no longer certain, 53 million gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford has nowhere to go. And the containers holding this waste are a problem not for some creature in a distant time, but those who are alive today. D. K. Pan dances with two space women on this terrible landscape in a short but remarkable film by Karn Junkinsmith and Adam Sekuler, Interpretive Site: Hanford Reach. The grass is dry, the sky is clear, and the camera, handled by Benjamin Kasulke, never moves. The dancers move away from or toward the camera. They have nowhere to go besides this terrible, radioactive landscape. This is where we are now. Fukushima. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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