What is Deus Ex Machina in Film?

Deus Ex Machina is a storytelling technique that has roots in the ancient Greek Theatre. Let’s see how it applies to film.

Apr 1, 2024By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication
what is deus ex machina film

 

Deus Ex Machina is a Latin phrase that translates as God from the Machine. It is also one of the oldest plot-developing techniques. For example, the protagonist is trapped, facing death without any chance of survival or he is facing defeat without the slightest chance of victory. All of a sudden, someone or something comes along, changes the situation, and saves the main character. Out of the blue, an unsolvable problem is suddenly and conveniently solved, often in a way that seems unrealistic.

 

The Origin of Deus Ex Machina

odeon of herodes atticus deus ex machina
Ancient Greek Theatre, Herodes Atticus, Source: Greek Boston

 

The origin of Deus Ex Machina as a concept goes back to the ancient Greek Theatre. In ancient tragedies, a God willing to save the day or the main hero often provided the solution. The Deus Ex Machina was played by an actor who descended onto the stage and represented a deity. Back in the day, this plot device served as a method to resolve conflicts, primarily safeguarding the protagonist and offering a satisfying moment for the audience. For instance, in Sophocles‘ tragedy Oedipus Rex, the true identity of Oedipus comes from a plot intervention that resolves the central mystery through one of the first uses of Deus Ex Machina ever.

 

anchient greek theatre deus ex machina sketch
Deus ex Machina sketch. Source: Medium; next to Ancient Greek Theatre mechanism sketch. Source: Slide to Doc

 

Over the years, the Deus Ex Machina technique has shifted to a more metaphorical thing. While it used to involve a Deity providing the solution to the plot, in its modern version, Deus Ex Machina is often associated with overly convenient and, some might say, lazy undertakings that consistently protect the protagonist at the very last minute. The audience bonds with protagonists who create their destinies through choices and actions that lead to a culmination. Carelessly and chaotically separating the film climax from the protagonist diminishes the plot’s significance, rendering the story meaningless for the audience.

 

Aristotle’s and Robert McKee’s perspectives 

aristotelis portrait sarantea deus ex machina
Aristotle by Evi Sarantea. Source: CounterPunce

 

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The use of Deus Ex Machina as a narrative device has often been criticized for being an easy way out. Employing this specific technique can often set a trap for aspiring writers. Numerous critics and dedicated cinephiles believe that it should be avoided. Aristotle, the renowned Greek philosopher, criticized this technique of storytelling. He argued that the resolution of a plot should be based on the inherent logic of a play rather than on external elements that diverge from its internal logic. Aristotle once said: “It is evident that the solutions of plots should come about from the plot itself and not from a contrivance.”

 

robert mckee screenwriting guru deus ex machina
Robert McKee. Source: Los Angeles Times

 

Another storyteller guru of modern times, the famous screenwriter Robert McKee, analyzed and expressed the idea of an active protagonist who can overcome any kind of struggle. In his advice on storytelling, Robert McKee emphasized the significance of keeping the protagonist engaged in the climactic resolution. McKee embraced creativity in writers and scriptwriters worldwide through his celebrated seminars and his book Story.

 

The active participation of the protagonist when resolving the problem during the plot’s climax crisis is often the key to a successful storyline. However, the protagonist is likely sidelined from the main action when the solution arrives through an external intervention. In that case, the result can be catastrophic for the story, as the importance of the protagonist himself diminishes in the eyes of the audience.

 

On the other hand, when protagonists devise a solution using the abilities and traits we learn about at the start of the story, the audience experiences feelings of pleasure and justice. Ultimately, the gratification and validation that arise from protagonists harnessing their abilities and traits rely on finding the right balance between the character’s development and successful cinematic storytelling.

 

harry potter j k rowling protagonist deus ex machina
Skyfall by Sam Mendes; next to Harry Potter.

 

In the grand tapestry of storytelling, Harry Potter and James Bond stand out as dynamic examples of famous protagonists with distinct abilities and inherent traits that lead them to magnificent triumphs that bring joy to their fans. In the wizarding world of Harry Potter, his identity as the Boy Who Lived is interlinked with his magical prowess and courage. As challenges arise, Harry’s skills in spell-casting, his determined loyalty to his friends, and his inner need to stand up against evil push him to navigate dangerous scenarios and ultimately defeat all the dark forces.

 

Meanwhile, the iconic James Bond operates in a world of espionage. From the very beginning, his persona as a sophisticated and creative secret agent shapes his perspective on problem-solving. Bond’s sharp intellect, fighting skills, and charismatic charm are vital tools in his arsenal. Traditionally, he gives the audience a sense of satisfaction after every single victory that he achieves on the silver screen.

 

Finally, it appears that establishing a well-structured narrative with a thoughtfully regulated concept of catharsis serves as a gratifying reward for any viewer who has embarked on a storytelling journey, spanning from the ancient world to the present day.

 

Deus Ex Machina Blessing or Plot Device Curse?

screenwriting storytelling deux ex machina
Screenwriting and vintage film. Source: Premium Beat

 

A modern storyteller or a visionary filmmaker has to maintain the internal logic of a film. The audience can then trust a film’s structure and understand the plot. Once the rules of the story have been established, they cannot be changed. Otherwise, the plot development can seem dishonest, with the risk of alienating the audience from its meanings and messages. In numerous films, there’s a moment when the main characters find themselves clueless about overcoming obstacles. At times, a solution that appears to come out of nowhere can erode the audience’s trust in the story.

 

cavarly deus ex machina
British Household Cavalry, 1815. Source: The Deadliest Blogger

 

Finally, another common cliché happens when the cavalry suddenly comes to save the day. In that case, the timing is always too convenient. Out of the blue, this helpful intervention solves the problem for the protagonist without any contribution from the main character’s side. This use of Deus Ex Machina can destroy the suspense and kill the thrill felt by the viewers.

 

Commonly, real-life coincidences often carry an inherent allure, eliciting surprise and excitement. However, in a structured film script, where every coincidence appears abnormal, the audience can perceive these coincidences as lazy ways to resolve the plot. Reducing the use of coincidences in a script is fundamental to crafting a successful story.

 

Every story in cinema’s history sets specific frameworks that establish an informal contract between the storyline and the audience. The boundaries and rules of comedy are more easily bent than in any other genre. Audiences tend to be more forgiving and tolerant when it comes to comedies. On the other hand, in a more serious dramatic film script, when Deus Ex Machina is necessary for the plot’s progression, only a sacrifice or a significant loss can bring balance back to the story.

 

audience focus deus ex machina
Cinema audience, 2018. Source: The Digital Humanities Institute, University of Sheffield

 

Balancing a sense of plausibility in both comedy and drama is crucial. Sacrifices, losses, and well-developed characters can lessen the potential disruptions caused by the Deus Ex Machina effect, ensuring emotional engagement from the audience throughout the story. The audience must be convinced that the story was worth their time and their money. Nothing is worse than a viewer who is disconnected from a film and sees the story as predictable. Excessive use of the Deus Ex Machina effect is considered a risk for any contemporary filmmaker. However, this is a reminder of the power of Deus Ex Machina and as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Author Image

By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.