Watching The City Dark, I thought of that famous George Carlin bit where he goes to describe the extent of man’s stupidity as measured by the amount of land that we’ve soiled or outright destroyed in our unending obsession with shopping malls. Filmmaker Ian Cheney, having moved from rural Maine to New York City to find that the stars in the sky were virtually undetectable, shares a similar, if less clearly enraged, concern. Seeking an answer to the starless nights, Cheney investigates over the course of the documentary the tangible effects that cities’ perhaps perverse denial of the natural dark, called light pollution, has on the varying inhabitants of the planet.
The research, which includes interviews with writers, astronomers, historians, astrophysicists, ornithologists, lighting designers, and even criminologists, most compellingly indicates that the vast and unending illumination of modern society is a legitimate biological interference. Hatching turtles on the Florida coast, for instance, are unable to find the sea because of the distracting light of the cityscapes. Various birds, theoretically guided by the stars, are lured too close to land and crash into buildings. Humans are also potentially affected, as certain experiments imply that the continued exposure to artificial light interferes with the body’s internal nightly rhythms, which stymies the manufacturing of various internal chemicals. (Some studies also suggest that the continued cultural shift to working and socializing at night may be a factor in developing breast cancer.) There’s also a deeper existential implication: As we further contain ourselves in self-manufactured bubbles, we become further and further estranged from the surrounding ungovernable universe above, thus potentially divorcing us from the mystery and the wonder of, well, existence.
The City Dark is certainly impassioned. Cheney obviously means it as a primer to incite further investigation on the part of the populace, and there are occasionally beautiful compositions of the night that intimately drive home just what precisely is at stake. As an effort in civil duty, The City Dark would earn three sturdy stars, but as a film it’s lacking. Cheney isn’t much of a showman or a poet (especially when you consider, say, the Qatsi trilogy), and so this film feels like something you might only half watch in a high school science class. As the talking heads keep ladling the data on, you may find yourself guiltily considering a sneak over to whichever found-footage chiller or actioneer that’s most likely playing in the neighboring auditorium.