Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.


Published: 15 Mar 2014

An orrery in the usual sense is an early 18th century working model of the solar system. It is named for the English aristocrat that was an early owner and enthusiast.

My initial interest is because of the relationship to what I do, which is modeling the world with some level of useful fidelity. We generally do poorly at this and a close study of history helps clarify where bad decisions were made. Along the way, I became charmed by these devices.

They are physical models, and of course what I deal with are models that are divorced from physical constraints. So they indicate both an urge to represent and what went wrong with out fascination for things. But they have other attractions. They have essentially no practical value, so owning one was a statement about science, religion and who you were. They were intended to be displayed, and prompt conversation. The idea that the sun was central was not so radical at that point, but belief in it was a statement of modernity.

This was an era when clockworks were becoming refined and the all-important notion of time keeping was about to change how we work together. Here was the first adaptation of this kind of machinery for computation, what I count as the first computers. Combine that with being models, well that’s my sweet spot.

In Film

So, what we’ve tried to collect are films that use orreries. Some are more interesting than others, and I have divided them into two groups. There are those in which an orrery appears as a prop, and those with an intrinsic connection to the world of the film.

You see, a film is a model. We can only show physical things cinematically, so all films are physical models in a sense. Sometimes, an environmental feature will be used in the film as a representation of the world of the film or some agency in the film. A common example is a spooky house whose very existence has some control over what happens.

For me to note an intrinsic orrery, it has to be seen and it has to be mechanical or have visible moving parts. More important, the motion of the device has to be tied with the working of the world of the movie or some part of it.

For example, what wouldn’t count is an elaborate orrery in Restoration. It is just a prop, and incidentally anachronistic.

Films with Orreries

Films that have a physical model of their world folded in.

A great example is the climactic device in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). When assembled, it can be manipulated and modify the world, both in space and time. It looks like an orrery. A physically similar device from an earlier movie, Hudson Hawk (1991) plays a similar role. But instead of affecting the world of the film, it just changes lead to gold.

Another great example is the orrery of Prometheus (2012)

Two examples that miss: the crystal environments in The Fifth Element (1997) and The Dark Crystal (1982). Both of these affect the world, but as a tool not a model. And neither is mechanical.

A case where the machine does not resemble a traditional orrery is Thir13en Ghosts (2001). The device here is a machine of glass, masquerading as a house but actually an Ocularis Infernum, created by the devil and powered by ghosts. The moving parts give power over the future.

A similar case that does not qualify is La Chiesa (Demon Cathedral) (1989). The church is an elaborate machine that imprisons demons. When the machinery is activated, the demons are released and some humans trapped. The defeat of the demons is simply collapsing the building/machine.

Surely the most visually arresting example is in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, especially when seen in 3D. What we have here is deliberately patterned after an orrery, in fact a specific painting of one. This passes our test in that it is a model of the world that goes beyond a simple representation of celestial bodies. The user directly manipulates it as a user interface, beyond just navigating through a star map.

The visual technique of holographic static snow is used in all of the computer generated images and user interfaces, even those that are human-generated. It is in a way the visual center of the film, the way Giger’s images were of Alien.

A reader suggests that the maze in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a machine when people move through it. When Wendy and Danny move through it, they awake the hotel. Jack’s entering the Gold Room is the parallel. Well, that’s a clever view


The most common examples are clocks. The number of films where clocks represent the world are numerous. Most just use the clock as a metaphor, but to pass our test, manipulation of the clockworks must somehow disrupt the world.

Examples where this is the case are:

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) features a giant clock managed by an apparently all-seeing man, Moses. At a point near the end of the movie when the situation gets dire, he stops the clock,freezing time and allowing the dead to speak. Visually, many elements in the film’s world are based on clock-like elements: circles and lines.

For completeness, films where we have the metaphor but the clocks do not provide affordance are:

Scorcse’s Hugo (2011) deserves a special mention because it conflates special effects in movies, a mechanical man and a clock.

Fantastic Four (2005) the machine that recreates the storm?

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004): The orrery here is a clockworks in which the chronicler resides.

Hudsucker Proxy

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014