Film Review: The City Dark

Documentary on the dangers of artificial light alternates between quirky and profound.

In The City Dark, King Corn co-creator Ian Cheney explores the little-discussed (and little-known) phenomenon of “light pollution.” But his film’s approach is as much philosophical as it is polemical. Though it seems like another documentary about a problem without a practical solution, audience interest should be fairly strong.

Cheney, a Maine-born independent filmmaker, became interested in the disappearance of the night sky when he moved to New York City, a place known for its bright nightlife and bright night lights. The fact Cheney could see only a handful of stars above worried him and set him on his quest for answers.

The filmmaker visits with a series of scientists, astronomers, astrophysicists environmentalists, lighting salespeople and lighting designers. He asks the experts about everything from the disappearance of hatching turtles along the Florida coast to earth-killing asteroids falling over Hawaii. Cheney’s most immediately poignant discovery follows his interviews with both a cancer survivor and a epidemiologist who posit that night-shift workers exposed to artificial light are more likely to develop breast cancer than day-shift workers.

But The City Dark isn’t all negative about its topic. On the plus side, for example, a criminologist tells Cheney that crime has subsided since the advent of exterior night lights (especially in parks). And one cannot deny the aesthetic appeal of artificial light, illustrated (or should we say illuminated) by the film’s cinematography (by Cheney and Taylor Gentry). The other benefits of Thomas Edison’s invention are rarely mentioned.

As in King Corn (2007), a documentary about how low-grade corn has entered American diets to unhealthy effects, Cheney presents himself as a genial, nerdy fellow traveler, just trying to find answers to his questions. One must admire the writer-director-producer’s talent and tenacity. Though a few spots sound a little too classroom-ready, it should be noted that Cheney co-produced and co-wrote but did not direct King Corn. (Unlike the better, more free-form Corn movie, the increase here of talking-head interviews and generic New Age jazz scoring indicate Cheney’s “advancement” to a safer, drier professionalism.)

At the very least, The City Dark brings awareness to something most of us take for granted or don’t think about at all. Whether or not anything will ever be done about the excess of city light at night is another question, one the film doesn’t really answer.