Science fiction meets the documentary – sort of – in The City Dark, a film about stuff happening under cover of night, but pretty much invisible to civilization as we know it. Namely, the stars above. Once glowing in wonderment and filling the evening skies of planet earth, but now blanketed and barely detected beyond layers of pollution.
Director Ian Cheney, whose investigative doc King Corn raised alarm about what’s going down below ground that’s messing with our unhealthy appetites, switches gears with The City Dark to shed light, so to speak, about the human harm – both psychological and physical – originating from above.
Whether assembling a real life cast of enthusiastic astronomers, philosophers or stunned inner city boy scout wilderness star gazers – as opposed to the conventional documentary contingent of talking heads – Cheney repeatedly summons an eclectic collage of passions and principles in search of meaning and making sense of it all. And the dilemma of light pollution, as the vast artificial illumination of sprawling cities ironically impedes our sight further.
And with occasionally repetitive and too lengthy but endlessly fascinating film wizardry akin to an optometrist, Cheney seems to present viewers with a magical new pair of metaphorical glasses. Correcting our warped vision as he contrasts what we don’t see nightly with necessarily ever more elaborately constructed astronomy telescopes penetrating the polluted skies. Or as he visits those rare places still left on earth far from cities, where such splendor can still be viewed with the naked human eye.
In one tragicomic interlude, Cheney joins a diehard stray Long Island amateur astronomer, as he seemingly takes him back in time to a nostalgic lost past when fellow self-declared ‘Star Geezers’ would hit the coast at Jones Beach. And packing telescopes, to submerge themselves in an enchanted lit sky no longer to be found there.
Further distressing, are episodes of Chicago migrating birds instinctively flying towards light while heading south for the winter, but diving in suicidal flocks into the artificial lights of skyscrapers. Or freshly hatched Florida newborn sea turtles biologically programmed to be drawn to the glistening glow of stars over the ocean or else quickly die from dehydration, but disoriented and fatally following the electric lights of city landscapes instead.
Humans are apparently not escaping these deadly effects either. As scientists explain on camera how the disappearance of total darkness in our lives has led to a lowering of melatonin levels produced in our blood at night. A hormone naturally essential to resisting cancer, and a situation suspected for the ongoing steady rise in breast cancer rates worldwide.
Crafted as a mournful meditation that is both sobering and sublime, personal and global for Cheney, The City Dark is a simultaneously poetic and political challenge to the entire notion of human progress. And a world in which modern civilization may have won the battle in the long struggle against primitive existence, but indeed lost the war.
And one in which we have as a species moved closer to creature comforts, but in the process lost touch in a deepening alienation from our organic connection to the universe. Or, according to The City Dark, our endangered tiny planet compared to the galaxies out there ‘is not much real estate, but it’s all we’ve got.’