Review: Ian Cheney’s eye-popping film ‘City Dark’

New York City’s annual Tribute in Light is one scene in Ian Cheney’s ‘The City Dark.’ Photo courtesy of PBS.HOW TO SEE THIS FILM: The PBS premiere of “The City Dark” is July 5, 2012. However, check local showtimes in your region. We are aware than this series does not air everywhere, so visit the PBS POV website for information about watching the documentary online through August 5, 2012.

Review: Ian Cheney’s ‘The City Dark’
invites us all to rediscover our stars

Review by RTS Editor David Crumm

Are you one of the many viewers still choking on Ian Cheney’s 2007 documentary King Corn, now available on DVD from Amazon? Well, then—good. That was Cheney’s aim in his broadside against the dominance of corn in American life. Although a lot of farmers and ranchers didn’t care for that film, 82 out of the 99 reviews on the Amazon page for King Corn were 4-star and 5-star raves.

Now, “The City Dark” arrives as a kinder-gentler successor to Cheney’s earlier work. That doesn’t mean it’s any less troubling. Cheney shows us that—after thousands of years of global wisdom about the importance of the starry night sky—most Americans now are covering themselves in “a luminous fog.” The basic problem is light pollution: In our quest for safety, security and longer working hours, Americans have wired our world to shut out the night. In doing so, we create glowing domes above most of our cities, preventing the stars from shining through to us.

ReadTheSpirit has participated in two full-scale pilgrimages to the Isle of Iona, one of the world’s most revered sacred sites. I can tell you, first hand, that one reason Iona is described as a spiritual “thin place” is the lack of light from the ground at night. The lack of nighttime light pollution is a fact of life on Iona. But, during one pilgrimage we made to the island, an Atlantic storm knocked out power across northewest Scotland. Men and women standing on Iona that night were knocked to our knees by the spectacular show of stars after the storm passed. The Milky Way looked like a tidal wave of light flowing toward us.

That’s what Ian Cheney tries to show us in the opening of “The City Dark.” Of course, we are watching this on TV screens (and some of us on computer screens), so Cheney’s ability to wow us with his visuals is sorely strained. But, I must say: He does a darned good job! Partly, he uses lots of visual tricks: High-resolution images, shots taken from telescopes, elaborately timed photography. Plus, he selects fascinating examples to include in his brief hour-long version for PBS. One of the best sequences shows us the hatching of endangered sea turtles and the tiny creatures’ vigorous search for the ocean shore, theoretically guided by starlight reflecting on the waves. Of course, due to light polution some of the fragile creatures head inland by mistake. (Don’t worry: Cheney’s team rescues those stragglers, but the point is obvious—thousands more perish due to light polution each season, when friendly filmmakers aren’t hanging around to help.)

But, “The City Dark” is not another Threat-of-the-Week nail-biter. If you are reading this review, then you’re among the many readers who already understand: We’re seriously messing up our planet. Cheney isn’t trying to beat us over the head with another eco-disaster warning here.

At his best, Cheney is pointing us to the deeply spiritual human connection with the night sky. Several times in the film, you’ll meet men and women who understand this age-old link between faith, science and the stars. Again and again, “The City Dark” asks us whether we’ve forgotten that essential connection.

Cheney asks us: “What do we lose, when we lose the night?”

Turns out: We may be losing our guiding lights.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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