The City Dark


The City Dark
Directed by Ian Cheney
Argot Pictures
Opens January 18, IFC Center

Adhering to the brand of bad faith agitprop that views—and damns—the world through a chosen narrow lens, The City Dark mounts a case for why "light pollution," a/k/a artificial illumination, is a serious threat to mankind and our environment. Frustrated by the dearth of visible stars in the New York sky, Maine-raised filmmaker Ian Cheney sets out to evaluate celestial visibility everywhere from Staten Island to Hawaii, tracking the skies via arresting astrophotography. Yet his scientific method goes undefined: His shoots aren't controlled for time of night, weather, or moon position. Nevertheless, and to the surprise of no sighted individual over the age of four, he discovers that you can't see constellations from Times Square, and the sky looks clearer the further you move from a city. But according to Cheney and select fellow travelers, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Don Pettit, it's not just the stars that we're losing track of in urban environments—it's our souls. Underneath all of the wild hyperbole and unproven hypotheses—that city lights cause breast cancer, foster egocentrism, and prevent us from detecting "Earth-killing asteroids," among other things—is an obvious unease with urbanism and the synthetic necessities of city life. Cheney is welcome to his anxiety, but not to the specious science of societal collapse by street lamp.

My Voice Nation Help

Mr Hynes,

The primary flaw that you find in the film, the filmmakers seeming "unease with urbanism and the synthetic necessities of city life", corresponds directly with my complaint with the film's failure to shine light on our flawed love of and sense of safety attached to excessive outdoor illumination.  There has been a great deal of research that poor quality and unnecessary lighting not only wastes ~10% of our electricity production (or like 25% of our coal consumption) while such lighting is in fact counter-productive to it's purposes.  Studies not only reveal that people actually feel less safe in over-lit rather than optimally-lit nighttime environments, but also that always on security lighting seems more likely add to crime rather than deter it* as glare and dark shadows actually make it harder to see hiding criminals while it gives them plenty of light to work by.

The film's primary illustrations of nighttime lighting's damage to our health as well as the grave threats it poses to birds and sea turtles should simply be the icing on the unmade argument for human vision based lighting rather than the absurdity we currently live with.  The opportunity was lost when Cheney does a ride along and a dark lot is pointed out as possibly hiding criminals, there is a failure to mention that the lot's relative darkness is only a function of human vision's limitations combined with overly bright glare producing street lighting making it impossible to see what might otherwise be perfectly visible.  The film affirms the emotional response to how the lighting of an urban neighborhood made residents feel safer without pointing out that the flawed lighting makes that sense of safety merely an illusion.

*The evidence against always on security lighting is dramatic, but the sample sizes are never comprehensive enough.  A look at when Florida and California schools stopped lighting their campuses overnight after the 2008 financial collapse induced budget crisis, vandalism dropped by 1/3, in a time with a spike in unemployment.


Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Movie Trailers