Let’s define deus ex machina together. And learn how to pronounce it too.
I grew up playing deus ex machina Video game, and I’ll tell you I had no idea what this title meant. In fact, I didn’t hear the term again until I graduated from Penn State with a very useful degree in contemporary literature. But it turns out that understanding what a Deus ex machina is and how to pronounce it can help you in your film and television career.
You spend the time getting your characters into trouble in your stories. Now is the time to see a way you can get her out of trouble.
So today we’re going to spend some time talking about the term, looking at examples from the entertainment industry, and figuring out the pros and cons of using it in your own writing.
Ready? Let’s dig in.
What does Deus Ex Machina mean in film and television?
The term “deus ex machina” may have had literary origins, but today I wanted to continue writing it as we see it in film samples and on television. So let’s define deus ex machina with these terms.
Deus Ex Machina definition
A deus ex machina describes a hopeless situation that is abruptly resolved by an unexpected event that was usually not previously hinted at. Some would say this plot device is an easy way to get characters out of difficult situations.
It’s a situational solution that usually gets the main character out of harm’s way or solves their problems without them having to face what they’ve done.
You can use deus ex machina for large dramatic or comedic purposes. It’s about hitting the tone of your project. You have an unexpected power, event, or person that shows up to save the day.
The deus ex machina has become a popular and even controversial method of completing an act or saving a character’s life.
How to pronounce Deus Ex Machina
The official pronunciation of the term is “dei-uhs eks maa · kuh · nuh”.
So now you can impress all of your friends.
What is the Deus ex Machina translation?
The term is Latin and means “God from a machine”. The term comes from ancient Greek and Roman theater plays. Back then, a wooden crane brought actors playing gods over the stage. They were lowered towards the end of the play to define the ending and give the audience some resolution.
That’s a fun origins, but let’s see what it means today.
Deus Ex Machina Films
There are many examples that define deus ex machina in films. So I thought we were going to go over some of the most famous ones. First, let’s look at the Eagles at the end of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
As Sam and Frodo lie on the mountainside, lava from Mount Doom spreads around them. And then Gandalf and the Eagles crash and get them to safety just in time.
It works in this movie because we believe in magic. But when something like this happens in similar films, we can get a little skeptical.
The whole movie Slumdog millionaire is built around a Deus-Ex-Machina premise. Our protagonist doesn’t win a game show because he knows the answers. He wins because the questions are all closely related to his life and happen to revolve around things he knows. We see that for an obvious one he has to use a lifeline early on, but the further he goes, the more precise the answers he knows.
A deus ex machina that has always annoyed me is the one at the end of war of the Worldswhere the aliens all die of germs. We follow this family and keep seeing them escape doom. Just so the whole thing happened to be over while they walk the final miles home.
The best way to use Deus ex machina is to make sure the way you use it never interferes with what the audience was promised of the experience. They don’t want them to feel betrayed.
Other Deus Ex Machina examples
We went to some big Deus-Ex-Machina movies, but what about the TV? There are enough of deus ex machina TV tropes we can cover. For example, what was it like when Adam West played Batman and got into a fight in a helicopter and crashed … right on a mattress factory?
One of the boldest I can remember in recent history is on the second season of Fargo. There’s an insane motel shootout. and just as our heroes are about to bite it, a UFO descends and stops all the violence. People run and flee, all because of the gigantic distraction.
I didn’t just love this because it pays homage to it The man who wasn’t therebut also because it fit the theme of the show this season. It was about looking into people’s hearts and judging ourselves by how we treated each other.
A show that Deus ex machinas did both great and bad in my opinion was LOST.
LOST deus ex machina
On the show LOST, There is a recent episode entitled “Deus ex machina.“It’s a clever and fun game of definition. It shows a literal case where Locke and Boone find a crashed plane filled with statues of the Virgin Mary (who turns out to be heroin filled) and a radio.
In the episode, Locke’s beliefs are juxtaposed with 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, slams it and a light goes off, renewing his belief and changing his attitude towards the island.
We won’t find out until much later 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 by how they treat or care for the island and their past deeds. This monster rushes in and saves them many times. When characters are stuck in a shootout, they let go of it to simply kill everyone. Or when they’re in an intense scene, the monster shows up and forces them to face their fears.
I am in love LOST, and think it’s one of the smartest shows ever. But old Smokey (later found out to be Titus Welliver’s The Man in Black) helped them a lot. Maybe that’s part of the genius of writing.
What’s next? Get Our Free Screenwriting eBook!
Much of what we talk about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our new eBook. It also helps walk you through a 10 week writing schedule that will actually finalize your script.