About a year ago I was directed to this bit of writing by Andrew Ellard, regarding the over and misuse of the term “deus ex machina” by people criticising screen-writing. It’s been making its way around my head again recently after a string of critiques of the “Everything Wrong With” video essay style, which have a tendency to hugely, massively over apply the term (to the point where it apparently means “surprising thing happened”).
Ellard contends that the true deus ex machina is, within cinema at least, these days so rare as to be basically non existent, and that sure, we all think we can roll off a list of examples, but a deus ex machina isn’t just an unexpected reveal, or even a badly written unexpected reveal, it should be more akin to having the story pull a straight up miracle out of its arse to get the characters out of a dead end.
So are there any examples of a genuine deux ex machina in modern cinema? Without launching into an all out research project I could only think of one, ONE that truly qualified, I believed for a moment I might have had two, but on reflection my second example didn’t fit the criteria at all, but it does make a good example of one which may appear to be a deus ex machina at first glance, so I’m going to take a look at both of them and see what makes one an example whilst the other is not.
The Life of Brian
Brian’s random salvation.
Yes, the only one I could think of, and it’s from a comedy. Brian is being chased by Roman soldiers after being caught daubing graffiti onto the city walls, in a desperate move he tries to escape up a tower, only to find himself hopelessly trapped, with no option but to leap to his death rather that face a more tortuous end, so he climbs over the edge, and he jumps…
...at which point he is caught by a passing alien spacecraft, which later crashes nearby with Brian emerging unharmed.
Nothing in the film up to that point had referenced the existence of aliens, or spacecraft, or even had a science fictional tone. Indeed for a film by the Monty Python team, everything had been rather grounded.
The aliens come from nowhere, to save to protagonist from a hopeless situation, and indeed serve no further role in the story what so ever after that point.
Deus ex machina to a fault.
The Quest for The Holy Grail
Arthur’s not so random salvation.
Trapped in a network of dark caves, Arthur and his knights find themselves pursued by The Legendary Black Beast of Arrggghhhh! with seemingly no hope of escape…
...until the animator has a fatal heart attack and “the cartoon terror is no more”.
It appears to come from absolutely nowhere and it saves the characters from a hopeless situation, so how is it that this example isn’t a deus ex machina? Well, because unlike the one in The Life Of Brian, it doesn’t come from nowhere at all. The film has made a number of fourth wall breaks before this point, it is very self aware of being a film (“Sir Not Appearing…”, “It’s only a model” etc) so the sudden involvement of something on the production level and outside of the narrative one - whilst a surprise - isn’t something which comes from nowhere, is makes sense within what we know of this film’s world.
It is not a deus ex machina.
So are there more? A cursory peek at some Top 10 Deus Ex Machinas type listacles yeald, not a lot of good suggestions (The Ark in Raiders of The Lost Ark, really? It’s in the title!) but are there any out there that survive an honest analysis?
(Remember: Even a reveal that pushed your suspension of disbelief or really annoyed you isn’t necessarily a deus ex machina).