I grew up playing the Deus ex Machina video game, and I will tell you that I had no idea what that title meant. In fact, it wasn't until I picked up a super useful contemporary literature degree at Penn State that I ever heard the term again. But it turns out, understanding what a deus ex machina is, as well as how to pronounce it, can help you with your film and TV career.
You spend the time getting your characters into trouble in your stories, now it's time to see one of the ways you can get them out of trouble.
So today, we'll spend some time talking about the term, looking at examples across entertainment, and figuring out the pros and cons of using it in your own writing.
Ready? Let's dig in.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'Credit: New Line Cinema
What Is the Deus Ex Machina Meaning in Movies and TV?
The term "deus ex machina" might have arisen from literary origins, but today I wanted to extrapolate it as we see it in movie examples and television. So let's define deus ex machina in those terms.
Deus Ex Machina Definition
A deus ex machina describes a hopeless situation that is solved abruptly by an unexpected occurrence that was usually not hinted at beforehand. Some would say this plot device is an easy way to get characters out of difficult situations.
It’s a situational resolution that usually takes the main character out of danger or solves their problems without them having to face what they have wrought.
You can use deus ex machina for grand dramatic or comedic purposes. It's all about matching the tone of your project. You have an unexpected power, event or person show up to save the day.
The deus ex machina has become a popular, and even controversial, way of concluding a plot or saving the life of a character.
How to Pronounce Deus Ex Machina
The official way to pronounce the term is "dei-uhs eks maa·kuh·nuh."
So now you can impress all your friends.
What is the Deus ex Machina translation?
The term is Latin for “god from a machine.” The term comes from Ancient Greek and Roman plays. At the time, a wooden crane brought the actors who were playing gods in over the stage. They were lowered in toward the end of the play to determine the ending and bring resolution for the audience.
That's a fun origin, but let's look at what it means today.
Deus Ex Machina Movies
There are lots of examples that define deus ex machina in movies. So I figured we would go through some of the most famous. First, let's look at the Eagles at the end of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
As Sam and Frodo lie on the side of the mountain, lava from Mount Doom spreads around them. And then Gandalf and the Eagles swoop down and carry them off to safety, just in time.
It works in this movie because we believe in magic. But when things like this happen in similar movies, we can get a little skeptical.
The entire movie Slumdog Millionaire is built around a deus ex machina premise. Our protagonist is not winning at a game show because he knows the answers. He's winning because the questions all have an exact correlation to his life, and just happen to be about things he knows. We see that he has to use a lifeline early on for an obvious one, but knows more detailed answers the further he goes.
One deus ex machina that always bugged me is the one at the end of War of the Worlds, where the aliens all just die due to germs. We follow this family and see them escape doom over and over. Just to then have the whole thing be over randomly as they walk through the last miles home.
The best way to use deus ex machina is to make sure the way you use it never takes away from what the audience was promised out of the experience. You don't want them to feel like they were cheated.
Other Deus Ex Machina Examples
We looked at some big deus ex machina movies, but what about TV? There are plenty of deus ex machina TV tropes we can cover. Like what about when Adam West played Batman and got into a fight on a helicopter and fell off... right onto a mattress factory?
One of the boldest ones I can remember in recent history is in season two of Fargo. There's an insane shootout at a motel. and just as our heroes are about to bite it, a UFO descends and stops all the violence. People run and escape, all because of the gigantic distraction.
I loved this not just because it was an homage to The Man Who Wasn't There, but also because it fit the theme of the show that season. It was about looking at man's heart and judging us based on how we treated one another.
'Fargo'Credit: FXOne show that I think did deus ex machinas both great and poorly was LOST.
LOST Deus Ex Machina
Inside the show LOST, there's an actual episode titled "Deus Ex Machina." It's a smart and fun play on the definition. It features a literal case when Locke and Boone find a crashed plane filled with Virgin Mary statues (which turn out to be filled with heroin) and a radio.
Inside the episode, Locke's faith is juxtaposed against Boone's pragmatism. Boone is killed, Locke loses his faith. But at the end of the episode, Locke goes back to the hatch he found, bangs on it, and a light shoots out, renewing his faith and changing the way he feels about the Island.
We learn much later that Locke's screaming actually stopped Desmond from committing suicide, so this was a real deus ex machina moment after all.
LOST is also famous for having a smoke monster, a created machine (or god) that judges people based on how they treat or care about the Island and their past deeds. That monster swoops in and saves them lots of times. Like when characters are stuck in a shootout, they release it to just kill everyone. Or when they are in an intense scene, the monster will show up and force them to face their fears.
I love LOST, and think it's one of the smartest shows ever. But old Smokey (later revealed to be Titus Welliver's the Man in Black) bailed them out a lot. Maybe that's part of the genius of the writing.
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