What does deus ex machina mean? 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.
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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. Many people define deus ex machina in slightly different ways and there's often difficulty finding a consensus.
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 Latin for “god from the machine.” It refers to the crane or pulley system 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.
It can be hard to pin down deus ex machina examples in movies because the device itself generates a lot of debate. How you define deus ex machina would be acceptable to someone else, and vice versa. Here's Robert McKee with his own thoughts on the device and why people who complain about the "randomness or convenience" should be more concerned with character.
After this deus ex machina definition, let's talk about some contemporary examples. Most modern stories don't involve deities intervening our stories so what does deus ex machina mean today?
DEUS EX MACHINA EXAMPLES
What does deus ex machina mean today
We've come a long way in our storytelling but there's one thing that writers will always face — ending their story logically, purposefully, and with meaningfully. This is much easier said than done and there have been countless deus ex machina examples in film.
To define deus ex machina is to show it in action. While we rarely see a literal god from the machine swoop in to save the day anymore, we we define deus ex machina has expanded quite a bit. We've isolated four distinct types that most storytellers find themselves in.
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 this plot device as much as possible, there are ways to make it work for your story rather than against it. Here are some common criteria to help us expand this deus ex machina definition along with some ways to make this plot device work.
First up, when the rules of the game get changed at the last minute.
Deus Ex Machina Examples
Changing the rules
No matter how fantastical a story is, it must obey the rules of its own internal logic. For example, Neo learns that within the Matrix, rules like gravity can be bent or even broken. In the climax of the first film, Neo stops an onslaught of bullets in mid-air. Neo obviously understands how to break the rules and, therefore, this resolution works.
However, in the climax of The Matrix Reloaded, Neo uses his god-like powers to neutralize attacking sentinels in the real world. This changing of the rules can be confusing for the audience because it appears to break the film’s internal logic.
We can see a similar example of this in Ghostbusters. Earlier in the film, Egon warns the others that "crossing the streams" of their proton packs would be "bad." Just how bad you ask?
"Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light." Yeah, that's bad.
That "rule" is established firmly and based on Egon's description, it seems like breaking that rule is impossible. However, when it comes up at again during the climax, Egon claims it might be possible and there's "definitely a very slim chance that we'll survive.
Now, with comedies, especially something as fantastical as Ghostbusters, a deus ex machina example like this is easily forgivable. We're dealing with a giant marshmallow man so "logic" isn't really a priority.
Deus Ex machina Explained
Resolutions by accident
Another problem that leads to deus ex machina examples is when the resolution is made possible with previously unknown information. In other words, by accident.
A classic example of this is The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy accidentally splashes the Wicked Witch with water, which causes her to disintegrate.
Since Dorothy was unaware that water would have this effect, her victory is pure luck and nothing more. This isn’t automatically a problem but it does lessen the resolution and can leave the audience underwhelmed.
We can see something similar in one of Steven Spielberg's best movies. His adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds borrows the book's resolution: that the alien invaders are ultimately taken down by microscopic bacteria.
The potential problem with this resolution is that the victory was given but not "earned" in the classical sense. In the film, Ray (Tom Cruise) protects his estranged family during the invasion and does a quite admirable job. But we typically want our hero to overcome their obstacles, not merely wait until they are taken off the table altogether.
Deus Ex Machina Explained
Here comes the cavalry
Many times in the storytelling, the hero needs help and that’s where the “cavalry” comes in. In these deus ex machina moments in movies, the cavalry is any support given to the hero (often at the last possible moment) from external sources. At the end of Jurassic Park, the characters are cornered by murderous velociraptors. And just before their doom is sealed, the T-Rex pounces on the raptors, saving the day.
We’re relieved that the characters survive but the perfect timing and the implausibility of the rescue (as opposed to the T-Rex simply eating the people instead of the raptors) makes this officially a deus ex machina example.
Where the problem usually lies in this type of deus ex machina comes down to timing. If the T-Rex didn't arrive at that very second, Dr. Grant and co. are goners. The solution? If you can minimize the convenience and timing of these last-minute rescues, the audience will have less reason to roll their eyes.
Fate or Coincidence
The coincidental deus ex machina
Finally, our last type of “god from the machine” is generated by pure coincidence. A deus ex machina example that seems to fall into this trap is from The Phantom Menace. During the climactic battle, young Anakin starts firing from his downed ship and he just happens to destroy the entire station, which disables the entire droid army.
This is an echo of Luke’s destruction of the Death Star in Episode IV, which (for most people) was a much more satisfying resolution because the success is intentional and not accidental.
Luke trusting the Force and firing the kill shot completes his entire character arc. Meanwhile, Anakin is simply firing randomly and hits a vulnerable part of the station by pure coincidence (or was he using the Force?!).
Here's another example of how pure coincidence works. In the first Toy Story, Buzz and Woody were on their way to Pizza Planet with Andy but now they're stranded at a gas station. Then a Pizza Planet delivery driver shows up and they are able to hitch a ride to reunite with Andy.
We've covered some modern examples that give us an idea of what does deus ex machina mean today. Now, we can talk about some of the ways to use this maligned plot device that actually work.
More Deus Ex Machina Examples
When deus ex machina (sort of) works
Just to be clear, the deus ex machina is best to be avoided, but there are some instances when the device is acceptable, or at least, when it’s understandable. Occasionally (and 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.
The story was inspired by the real-life struggle Kaufman faced while trying to adapt 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. Cage’s character is even told by iconic screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) to “find an ending...but don’t cheat. And don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina.”
So, near the end, we see the deus ex machina trope at play when an alligator takes out a character who’s trying to kill Cage’s character. 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.
When approaching the idea of "setup and payoff," we can point to another literary device that does just that. Chekhov's Gun is a "rule" in storytelling that if the audience is shown a loaded gun in Act One, it must be fired before the end. Now, of course this doesn't always mean a literal gun.
Here's a video explaining this concept using Knives Out.
Know your genre
Choosing one of the various movie genres will have a direct impact on how successful a deus ex machina will be. In general, comedies are much more forgiving than dramas when it comes this issue. Thoughtful writers can use the deus ex machina for irony, just plain silliness, or sometimes both.
For an example of this, look no further than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. First, there's the segment when the knights are pursued by a monstrous cave beast. Just before their doom is sealed, something happens to the animator.
So, as long as you properly set up your resolution, the audience will suspend their disbelief that much more. The deus ex machina meaning vs. meaninglessness debate comes down to the writer. With your protagonist in mind at all times, your conflict resolution can be random, coincidental or even implausible but as long as they make the final action and/or decision, you should be safe from criticism.
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.