What exactly is lost when the lights of our sprawling cities obscure the brilliance of the night sky? That's the simple question posed by The City Dark, an engaging documentary by writer-director Ian Cheney. The short answer is "perspective," a deeper understanding of our place in the universe. While the film takes on a range of related issues, such as the detrimental health effects of our artificially lighted 24/7 world, it stays true to the philosophical concerns it obviously holds dear. The City Dark is more poetry than science.
Cheney has produced or directed seven documentaries, most notably 2007's Peabody Award-winning King Corn, for which he and a college buddy moved to Iowa and grew an acre of the crop to examine the effects of subsidized industrial farming. But for Cheney, our disappearing stars are a personal matter. He grew up in rural Maine, building telescopes out of cardboard tubes and naming his own constellations, and he's got the vintage photos to prove it. His comfort with the topic and his passion for it are clear. He even largely avoids the phrase "light pollution," which might have mired the film in the sort of one-issue activism it hopes to transcend.
Instead of politics, The City Dark offers charming homespun animation and Cheney's own glorious astrophotography to show exactly what the night sky is all about. It takes us to the observatories of Hawaii's volcanic islands, the best place on earth for watching the cosmos unfold after dark. Experts abound in the film, from noted astrophysicists to lightbulb salesmen, but they're there to share personal perspective developed over time. Unafraid to explore all sides of the story, the film captures the magic of city lights just as it does the stars.
Crucial observations come from Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and a regular guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (He still receives hate mail from third-graders for demoting Pluto from planet to icy comet.) Experiencing the night sky allows "a resetting of your ego," he says. To see the edge of our Milky Way galaxy at night, as everyone used to do less than 100 years ago, is to understand what it means to be a speck on just one of 50 billion galaxies known to exist.
Cheney has been taken to task for not providing strong scientific evidence to support his claims, but the film doesn't really make any — it's too Zen for that. The City Dark concludes that the "luminous fog" of our nocturnal world is largely a matter of design. It allows the lighting designer for Manhattan's gorgeous new High Line park to explain how he recently solved the problem, at least on a small scale. The universe is a big place, but you've got to start somewhere. — KEN KORMAN