Short Film Review: The Adjustable Cosmos (2010)

Hello, all! This will be something of a silly post today, discussing a film that’s a little hard to classify. Is it fantasy? Sci-fi? Comedy? Alternate history? Steampunk? Well, this tale of adventure through a clockwork universe is all of the above, an enchanting and beautifully animated voyage into space as it was once understood. I present: “The Adjustable Cosmos.”

All screenshots are fair use, though I’m sure the filmmakers won’t mind—I’m promoting their work, for free!

This hidden gem has hardly any online presence, and has been pretty much forgotten over the years. It is a 21-minute Australian production by Adam Duncan as director and Adam Browne as writer; according to IMDb, it was produced in 2010, though the two extant copies (on YouTube and Vimeo) and the three or so articles about it date to 2013 and 2014. The only review on IMDb is a dead link to a Greek website. I myself first came across the film on an io9 post in eighth or ninth grade1, and its animation, ideas, and sense of wonder have stuck with me ever since.

“The Adjustable Cosmos” takes place in March 1453, during the siege of Constantinople. The Catholic Church sends one Cardinal Bessarion to Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to enlist the Hapsburg emperor, Frederick III, in relieving their fellow Christians from attack. The rather timid Frederick fears the Ottomans and doesn’t particularly want to go; when his court astrologer, the brilliant Regiomontanus, finds that the stars portend ill for the expedition, he is in a bind—until Regiomontanus suggests a solution. If the stars align against them, why not just fly up there and change the stars?

The historical Bessarion was an erudite scholar. When he wasn’t occupied by ecclesiastical pursuits, he was writing Neoplatonic philosophy and preserving classical texts in his sizeable library. He actually employed Regiomontanus after 1461.
Frederick III assumed the throne in 1452. He wasn’t necessarily the comical buffoon he is here, but he did earn a reputation for indecisiveness.
Regiomontanus made extensive contributions to the fields of mathematics and astronomy, with his innovations paving the way for Nicholas Copernicus’ heliocentric theories a century later. In 1453 he was only 17 years old, though he did have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vienna. There is a crater on the Moon named after him.

The plan is simple. Regiomontanus has already affixed a rocket-launched cable to Polaris, the North Star, and all they must do is ascend the cable in a specially designed craft, taking them on a voyage past the Earth-orbiting planets to the sphere of stars enclosing the universe. There they will alter the heavens themselves, changing Frederick’s horoscope so that he can more favorably campaign against the Ottomans. With great excitement, but no small degree of trepidation, the astrologer, the emperor, and the cardinal depart on their grand odyssey…

First stop: The Moon! As Regiomontanus puts it, “The heavenly bodies swing about our Earth on epicyclic hoops of perfect matter, driven in their orbits by their love of God.” Note also that the Moon is a nesting ground for countless seagulls, the droppings of which give the world its characteristic luster.

The magic of “The Adjustable Cosmos” lies in its thoroughly pre-modern understanding of the universe. This is the Ptolemaic cosmology, dominant until the 1500s, with Earth at the center and all other objects (including the Sun!) orbiting around it. The planets themselves are endlessly exotic, their depictions an amalgamation of historical folk tales with the wild ideas of this film’s animators. Venus is a world of sensuous purples; Mars is strewn with the weapons of age-old wars; Jupiter is a vast ocean home to titanic beasts. Over it all, we have a stately narrator describing the sights of the wild, dangerous cosmos, as it must have seemed before telescopes, space probes, and common sense so cruelly limited our imaginations.

Here are those titanic beasts I was talking about! They are titanic, and beastly.
The mysterious realm of the Outer Heavens, where time itself begins to warp…

Our heroes ascend ever upwards, out past the last2 of the planets, Saturn, and into the vast regions beyond. But unbeknownst to them, they are not alone out there. The dreaded Ottoman Turks have in fact launched their own space program, close behind Regiomontanus’ ship, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation in the celestial sphere itself. Will Emperor Frederick and his friends realign the cosmos in time?

Now for the meat of the review: despite being an unknown indie production, just twenty minutes long, “The Adjustable Cosmos” is an absolute delight. I watched it seven years ago and it was more than memorable enough to stick with me through the years since. The quality and creativity of the animation is the biggest draw: it is absolutely gorgeous, stunning, other synonyms for beautiful, with the myriad planets depicted in a way that perfectly conveys the grandeur and mystery of an imagined Solar System. While there’s not much historical accuracy to speak of, it does call back to a thoroughly medieval concept of space. Forget the ’50s raygun aesthetic, this is retro sci-fi!

The ship passes through the rings of Saturn, here composed of countless trees and their luminous fruit.

The writing is also very good. It’s a playful story, filled to the brim with humor, that nevertheless conveys wonder and awe when appropriate. I think the zany, all-round creativity is commendable. I like the characters quite a bit, though in twenty minutes they obviously can’t be developed much; my only real gripe is that the ending, while a happy one, is ridiculously tidy, and sidesteps with little explanation the entire conflict they were trying to resolve (namely the imminent fall of Constantinople). Oh, well. This plot hole hardly detracts from the film.

Fun fact: This kind of mechanical model of the Solar System is called an orrery. Most aren’t quite this big.

My verdict? A fantastic piece of the animation, really a must-see, every bit worth the time you’d invest to watch it. The fantasy vision of space travel is much like Treasure Planet, painting a picture of a vast and dreamlike cosmos; the technical execution is spot-on for such a small production. The director deserves an award, for bringing it all together, and the writer deserves an award, and the animators, of course, deserve plenty of awards for making this film look as brilliant as it does. Heck, if they ever ordered sandwiches to feed the studio during the long and busy afternoons, the sandwich makers deserve commendation, too—it was their work that fed genius.

You can watch it here, uploaded by the creators themselves. There is also a version on YouTube. While “The Adjustable Cosmos” has sadly faded into obscurity, with pretty much nobody talking about it anymore, I hope my review can spark at least a little interest in a forgotten masterpiece.

Rating: 10/10.

Further Reading:

  1. It was this one:
  2. Uranus and Neptune were only discovered in 1781 and 1846, respectively. Only the first six planets can be recognized as such without the aid of a telescope.

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