Film 101: Deus ex machina

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Literally translating to “god from the machine,” deus ex machina refers to a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. The phrase originates in ancient Greek drama, where the mortal heroes would be rescued from their dilemma by the direct intervention of the gods (usually wheeled onto stage with some kind of machine, hence “god from the machine”).

With the invention of film, naturally examples of deus ex machina abound, though usually they’re the source of great scorn from the audience, as resorting to deus ex machina is usually perceived as “taking the easy way out” when it comes to telling a story.

Some notable examples include (but are by no means limited to):

  • The Eagles in The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings: The Great Eagles of Middle-Earth actually serve this purpose on multiple occasions: Eagles rescue Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves in The Hobbit; Eagles show up out of nowhere to save the day in The Battle of the Five Armies; Eagles show up out of nowhere to save the day in The Return of the King (I sense a pattern here); an Eagle rescues Gandalf from Isengard; an Eagle rescues Gandalf from Moria (though to be fair, that’s more explicitly stated in the book than in the film); and of course, Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam from the exploding Mount Doom after the Ring was destroyed. So much of this story would not have happened without the Eagles (often unexpected) intervention.

Vizzini_battle_of_the_wits

  • Immunity to Iocane powder in The Princess Bride: So in order to save Buttercup, Wesley challenges Vizzini to a “battle of wits” where the latter has to determine which cup of wine has been poisoned with deadly iocane powder. Only after Vizzini is dead does it come out that both cups were poisoned because (conveniently), Wesley spent several years building up an immunity to the substance.
  • Fawkes and Gryffindor’s sword in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Things get pretty dark for Harry by the end of this film: he’s been poisoned by a basilisk, he’s isolated in the Chamber of Secrets deep below Hogwarts, there’s no way he can possibly survive, right? Well…out of nowhere, here comes Fawkes, a magical phoenix whose tears can cure any poison! Fawkes also has the Sorting Hat, which, oh how convenient, produces the legendary sword of Godric Gryffindor, giving Harry the means to kill the basilisk once and for all.

Kylo_Ren_Interrogates_Rey.0

  • Rey’s mind-reading abilities in The Force Awakens: If this is not a deus ex machina moment then it treads dangerously close to being one. Doesn’t it seem particularly odd that, when Kylo is attempting to read her mind to find the information about the map piece, that Rey is suddenly able to turn it around and read Kylo’s mind, just like that? And on a related note, how did she know to use the Jedi mind trick on that stormtrooper?
  • The Martians in The War of the Worlds: This has to be one of the biggest examples of deus ex machina ever made, and no matter how it’s spun for a film, it always sounds really stupid. Consider: Earth has been overwhelmed by a fleet of Martian ships that slaughter and destroy all in their path. Nothing the Earth has can stop them, it’s only a matter of time before everything is wiped out. And then suddenly, all the Martians begin dropping dead. It turns out these unstoppable aliens were brought down by…germs? That’s right, all the military might in the world couldn’t get the job done, but microscopic germs could (it just took time for the Martians to be affected by them). Independence Day somewhat parodies this when David uploads a computer “virus” to the mother ship, bringing down the shields of the invading ships.

I would also like to point out that The Matrix Revolutions somewhat parodies this concept when Neo meets the central interface of Machine City, known as The Deus Ex Machina.

 

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So there are five examples of deus ex machina in film. Let me know what you think of these examples in the comments below and also feel free to share any examples you can think of that I didn’t mention. Have a good day!

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See also:

Film 101: Archetypes

Film 101: The MacGuffin

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3 thoughts on “Film 101: Deus ex machina

  1. Carl Wonders

    Gotta quibble with your PRINCESS BRIDE one. Wesley is the one who brought the iocane powder into it, so he knew what he was doing. Just because the audience didn’t, doesn’t mean it’s a deus ex machina. If VIZZINI had been the one who poisoned the cup on the other hand…

    My favorite example (not on this list) has to be the rescue of the toys from the furnace in TOY STORY 3. Such a great tie back to the original film.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Film Music Central Post author

      I still think it’s a reasonable example simply because it’s unexpected *to the audience* Of course Wesley knows what he’s doing, but we don’t. We can agree to disagree 🙂 Oh yea, I forgot about Toy Story 3, that’s a good example too 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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  2. Pingback: Film 101: The MacGuffin | Film Music Central

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