Relaying stargazers’ complaints about city lights, the first half of the documentary film The City Dark risks becoming a platform for a fringe user group, until filmmaker Ian Cheney finally moves from anecdote to evidence, denouncing electric light as a harmful pollutant.
He cites the high risk of cancer for shift workers and the number—and type—of birds that die from running into lit windows. A particularly hard scene shows newborn sea turtles, which navigate by the light bouncing off of the ocean, heading instead for the city, drawn by the lights of Boca Raton, Fla.
But first, we have to sit through all the star-geekery: The City Dark opens with Cheney taking a number of stunning long-exposure photographs of the sky. Having grown up in rural Maine—an astronomy camp graduate who made his own telescope—Cheney explains, he moved to New York City, discovering, of course, that nary a star could be found—OK, maybe one or two, depending on where one goes.
Following his own whimsical ponderings about what humans lose when they lose sight of the stars, he introduces a host of experts saying similar things, none of them hinting at the evidentiary information Cheney intends, eventually, to use.
Instead, each of these talking heads offers a story about how he or she became enamored of the stars, before supporting Cheney’s views with tales of ancient civilizations and, of course, the fear of deep space rocks plummeting toward the Earth. Though humanity has used lighting in various forms since its beginning, Cheney says, light pollution arrived with electricity.
“It has been said, correctly I think, that there is no better symbol of modern progress than the advent of electricity in general, but electric lighting in particular,” Roger Ekirch, a Virginia Tech historian, says.
Individually, these stories are not uninteresting, but perhaps they are too many. We begin to feel that Cheney made the film exclusively for stargazers, chronicling impressions as insightful as any child’s, adding a rating system for the views from certain points, on a scale from A-F. Central Park gets a C-; Harlem, a D+; Staten Island, a C+; Times Square, an F.
The monotony continues on a camping trip with a Boy Scout troop and visits with “astronomers [who] have had to flee to the desert island areas of the world,” a voiceover says.
After a visit to Arizona Sky Village (rating: A) and Knitt Peak National Observatory (rating: A-), Cheney finally begins exploring the effects of 24-hour lighting on Earth species with his visit to Boca Raton. In Chicago, a particularly touching scene takes place when a city worker calls Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—which claims to find an average of 4,000 birds that have collided with buildings each year—for help with an injured bird. Seeing that the creature is still alive, the woman displays some excitement, even pride, exclaiming that she calls CBCM whenever she finds an injured bird.
The problem with these scenes is that they make up barely 40 minutes of an 83-minute film, and Cheney saves them for the end, without much indication that he intends to expand the film’s scope from stargazing to the greater detriments of light pollution. In short, we’re just not sure that the film has anything to do with the rest of us, who don’t have big telescopes or desert hideaways.
The City Dark