The Power of the Deus Ex Machina Compels You
Crutch or legitimate filmmaking device?
The main character is trapped. There’s no way out. They are surely doomed. The movie is over. Then all of a sudden, an inconceivable solution appears from out of the blue. This is what is referred to as a deus ex machina and it is one of the most frowned upon tropes in filmmaking.
Coined during Ancient Greek theatre, deus ex machina translates to “god from the machine.” This refers to a mechanical device that the Greeks would use to lower actors playing gods onto the stage. These gods often served as a plot device to help the characters out of a sticky situation. Since then, this term has been applied to any cheap, improbable solution in film, theatre, or literature.
Think about the eagles in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King or the T-rex that saves the day at the end of Jurassic Park. These unlikely heroes seem to come out of nowhere, as if delivered by the gods themselves.
The term deus ex machina is usually used derogatorily to reference a lazy solution to a conflict within the narrative. It’s like an escape hatch for the filmmakers when they write themselves into a corner—but it’s also a solution that usually undermines the rest of the story in the process. So why exactly is this device problematic? Let’s find out.