Writers work hard to put their characters into terrible situations to find new and creative ways to get them out. It’s entertaining and it’s a sign of a great, organic story. Conflict needs to live and breathe. But conflict also demands resolution. Catharsis. But for some writers, that catharsis comes cheap. This post explores the Deus ex Machina meaning in film with a few examples. Let’s jump in.
What is Deus Ex Machina?
Deus ex Machina meaning
Unfortunately, some writers find ways to resolve even the most inventive of situations with last minute saves. Sometimes they kind of work, but most of the time, it’s disappointing.
So, let’s properly define Deus ex Machina.
Deus ex Machina Definition
What does Deus ex Machina mean?
Deus ex Machina is when a hopeless situation is suddenly solved by an unexpected occurrence. It is a contrived plot device often used in film or novels. It is an easy way to get characters out of difficult situations and can often be a sign of “lazy writing.” It’s situational resolution. This trope can be used for comedic purposes too, and if the filmmakers are relatively self-aware about its use, it can sometimes work.
Deus ex Machina translation is Greek for “a god from a machine.” It refers to the crane that brought actors playing gods over the stage in Greek and Roman plays. They were dropped in often towards the end to determine the ending and bring resolution.
Past a Deus ex Machina definition, are contemporary examples. And there are so many. You can watch a few below.
Some of them are can be clearly categorized as lazy writing, while others aren’t so black and white. While I would recommend staying away from using them as much as possible, see for yourself with a few examples.
Deus Ex Machina Examples
Deus ex Machina examples in movies
To define Deus ex Machina is to show it in action.
And considering the phrase itself originates in the divine coming in to save the day, let’s look at a film example that does just that.
Pandora’s divine (and sudden) interference in James Cameron’s, Avatar.
The alien planet, Pandora, is home to the Na’vi. Pandora becomes infiltrated by humans and eventually there is a climactic battle against the two, and chaos ensues. The indigenous Na’vi are just about defeated, but of course, suddenly, and out of nowhere, the god of the planet sends out its wildlife to attack the humans.
The Na’vi speaks of “answered prayers,” so the movie is at least self-aware of its use of its trite device.
In the first Toy Story, when Buzz and Woody get stranded at a gas station, the Pizza Place delivery driver happens to be there, and also happens to be going back to Andy’s house. How convenient!
This 2001 police Drama most definitely used this device a few times. But let’s take one. At one point in the film, veteran detective, Alonzo Harris, Denzel Washington’s character, hires a few guys to kill Ethan Hawke’s character, Jake Hoyt. But right as they go to kill him, they discovered the girl Hoyt rescued earlier is the cousin of his potential executor. Because of course that makes sense.
Wizard of Oz
Okay, so this one I’m more than okay with because it gave us one of the most iconic one-liners of all time, “I’m melting!” But technically, it’s still a Deus ex Machina.
What could’ve been an interesting confrontation between Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Lion, and the Wicked Witch, turned into a quick removal of the villian with some accidental water. Ehh, not my favorite death scene.
All of the novels are excellent, and their accompanying film adaptations hit the mark. Mostly, anyway. So I have to say it’s hard to even accuse J.K. Rowling of ever using contrived plot devices. I feel dirty for just saying it. And to be fair, some of the supposed Deus ex Machinas in the series are properly set up and foreshadowed. But there are definitely a ton that aren’t. Let’s look at the second installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and see if we can find one.
Towards the end of the film when Harry is in Basilik’s den, and knows how big and dangerous said giant snake is, he drops his wand and just...leaves it there. Right in time for Tom riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort, to pick up Harry’s wand. But that’s not even the worst part. Tom Riddle has the wand for a considerable amount of time and does nothing with it..., and for a chunk of the scene...does nothing with it? At all? Oh that’s right, he spells his name with it, and then Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix flies in and saves the day.
More Deus Ex Machina Examples
When Deus ex Machina (sort of) works
Just to be clear, Deus ex Machina’s are best to be avoided, but there are some instances when the device is acceptable, or at least, when it’s understandable. Occasionally, (and please know I stress occasionally), when using it can be comedic or dare I say, even clever. When a film is ardently self-aware about using the contrive device, that’s great, but what’s better doesn’t just exist in them acknowledging it, but in how it works with the story itself.
I can’t speak for all audiences, but as a loose rule, when the film is overtly self-aware about their use of the device, it can work.
If you’ve seen Adaptation, you know the film is about a writer struggling to adapt a novel into a screenplay. The story mimics the struggle of real-life screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and his experience adapting the novel, The Orchid Thief. Adaptation was the end result.
In the movie, Nicholas Cage (who plays Kaufman), has a hard time coming up with anything original---we see the Deus ex Machina trope at play when an alligator takes out a character who’s trying to kill Cage’s character.
At another point in the film, Cage’s character is even told to by iconic screenwriter, Robert Mckee (played by Brian Cox) “find an ending...but don’t cheat. And don’t you dare bring in a Deus ex Machina.”
The movie is literally about a writer’s struggle to write well, so not only is this highly self-aware, it fits well into the narrative.
Proper Setup + Foreshadowing
Whether you think this a cheap device, or an occasionally excusable one, a little bit of setup (or foreshadowing) for your Deus ex Machina can go a long way.
Even the classic stoner movie, Half Baked, got this one right...I mean...kind of...a little...in a super stoner sort of way...
Thanks to this ridiculous(ly amazing) scene:
We now have this ridiculous(ly amazing) Deus ex Machina:
So just because there is no self-awareness amongst any of these characters, It works because one, we had somewhat of a setup, and two, the nonsense of Jerry Garcia saving the day fits pretty well into this stoner-esque story. So even if none of the characters had even the smallest bit of self-awareness, at least the writers did...a little. It was purposeful and hilarious. Well done, Dave Chapelle.
What’s a Plot Device? Examples in Film
Unlike Deus ex Machina, there are a ton of other plot devices that can serve your story well. With some examples from movies, get to know a few of them to write a better screenplay.