Deus Ex Machina: Acceptable Coincidence or a Cop-out?

Deus ex machina – 3 words that guarantee a Google the first time they are heard; whether that’s through a discussion on film theory or watching Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller aptly titled Ex Machina. It is a Latin expression derived from ancient Greek theatre which literally translates to “god from the machine.”

During Greek tragedies and comedies, there would often be an actor who played the role of God. They would be brought on to the stage via a machine; lowered by a crane or lifted through the trapdoor by a riser. A central reason for God’s presence within these Greek performances was to resolve any conflict the characters found themselves in, thus relying on implausible and unrealistic bouts of fate to complete the play.

This plot device has been used by the likes of Shakespeare and is still incredibly prevalent in some of the ‘best’ works today, shattering the illusion that a narrative could seamlessly fit into the real world. A suspension of disbelief is imperative when investing in a cinematic universe (fantasy, action, and adventure genres especially).

So why do some writers take advantage of that suspension to hoodwink their audience? Is it simply because they cannot envisage a logical conclusion? This then begs the question: in 21st-century cinema, is this device acceptable, or is it just careless writing that should be written off entirely?

An Insult and a Lie

Lecturer and author Robert McKee’s view on this is known globally. Brian Cox even played McKee sharing this opinion in Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 meta Adaptation:

Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives…Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.” – Robert McKee (1997)

Deus Ex Machina: Acceptable Coincidence or a Cop-out?
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – source: New Line Cinema

To feel the weight of this, one must see deus ex machina at work. Consider when the phoenix delivers the sorting hat/sword of Gryffindor to Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, or when out of nowhere, eagles swoop down and save the day in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Audiences wade through hell alongside these characters and invest in their complicated pursuits, for the answer to literally fall out of the sky in both of these examples (in true deus ex machina fashion).

McKee calls this a “lie”, which is ultimately true, for luck, fate, and coincidence intervene seconds before death. It isn’t realistic or respected, even in fantasies. If it fails to gain believability in the world of magic, then surely it flops even more so in fictitious universes that abide by the laws of the real world.

What’s the Matter Edgar? Never Taken a Shortcut Before?

Edgar Wright’s comedy Shaun of the Dead falls into this category for its ending: As soon as Shaun and Liz rise out of the pub cellar and are completely outnumbered by zombies, the army storms in. Wright could have used this moment to create action that reflects the nature of the characters, but instead, he relies on the unlikely event of the army stomping in at the make or break moment.

This isn’t the first time the writer/director has been accused of relying on a shortcut to propel his narratives. It has been said that the 2017 film Baby Driver includes an ‘annoying chain of deus ex machina plot devices to shove the story forward.’ One being when Doc/Kevin Spacey completely changes his antagonistic tune and gives up his life for Baby and Debora out of the blue.

Deus Ex Machina: Acceptable Coincidence or a Cop-out?
Shaun of the Dead (2004) – source: Working Title Films

It should be noted that on a rare occasion, the narrative trope can/could be used to a writers advantage (predominantly in the comedy genre), and since Shaun of the Dead is nothing short of hilarious, it had the potential to be executed in a way that makes the chosen ending more plausible with the obvious technique of foreshadowing.

Thank God for Jerry Garcia

Even the ridiculous stoner movie Half Baked got it right – when Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia comes out of Brian’s pouch to save the day… Brian’s bizarre Garcia purchase is mentioned earlier on in the film and although it is still completely ridiculous, it works and fits the pothead aesthetic. Sometimes the use of deus ex machina simply comes down to taste.

It can be debated whether the very obvious deus ex machina of Brian getting saved from a deathly fall by a completely random passing spaceship in Monty Python’s classic Life of Brian works. It is hilarious, but once again in an absurdist world, the plot device receives more leniency.

What Are the Odds?

It can be argued that life is random, therefore a random act of fate to intervene in a story and help the protagonist on their quest is somewhat realistic, but it isn’t a question of randomness, it is a question of meaningfulness. Throughout a story characters make choices, and choices lead to consequences and so on… It is those carefully selected moments in a character’s life that create meaning.

Deus Ex Machina: Acceptable Coincidence or a Cop-out?
The Lost Boys (1987) – source: Warner Bros.

If a deus ex machina can be used to create meaning and elevate the story then so be it, but taking the choice out of the character’s hands and putting it in the hands of a spiritual/godlike figure or an act of randomness, renders the climax meaningless. Examples of where the use of deus ex machina adds to a movie’s meaning are incredibly difficult to come by.

Horror tends to rely on this trope too often to create hope in a hopeless situation as most audiences prefer a happy ending, however that isn’t the most realistic of conclusions. The Lost Boys is a prime example of this, with the protagonist’s grandfather plowing his jeep into the house and killing the vampire before he transforms Lucy.

In the case of The Lost Boys and many other horrors (B-horror films especially), the plot device becomes a light at the end of a very dark tunnel, and just like comedy, it is granted a very small leeway. Some genres might have room for excuse, but it doesn’t mean they necessarily should fall back on it.

Deus Ex Machina: Conclusion

Ultimately, deus ex machina is a sign of lazy writing. Its implausibility takes advantage of the people who pay to see the work and it mocks their intelligence. It can make a story meaningless/reduces its effectiveness and create a disconnect with reality. Film teaches lessons to its audience, but how can those teachings hold any merit whatsoever when they are based on a lie?

There is very little room for this trope in modern-day cinema if a film is aiming for rationality – this even applies to the most abstract of movies. There are only a handful of exceptions to this rule and they only tend to apply to a couple of genres. If a writer decides on the unpopular decision to use it, then the film must include foreshadowing and context of the prop/character that grants the protagonist relief, aside from that, the use of deus ex machina is a total cop-out.

Cinemagoers see themselves in a movie, manifesting into the likes of Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but what experience does this present when the exploration ends so illogically? That the British Indian Army always saves the day? Or that they’ll get home from Oz if they just wake up? It strips the movie of meaning. Even taking these movies metaphorically, they all say the same thing and they all rely on a falsehood. It’s such a shame to see writers choose to fall at the last hurdle.

What’s your opinion on the use of deus ex machina? What are your most loved and hated examples of the trope? Share your thoughts and comments!

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