Deus ex machina
The Latin term deus ex machina [ˈdeːʊs ɛks ˈmakhina], literally meaning "the god from [or: by (reason of)] the machine" (female: dea ex machina), is a calque of the original Greek απὀ μηχανής θεός (apo mêchanês theós). In ancient Greek and Roman theater, a deus ex machina was a god introduced by means of a mêchanê to unravel and resolve the plot. As a more general term used in modern times, it describes an active agent who appears unexpectedly to solve an apparently insoluble difficulty, usually in a way considered unlikely or unrealistic.
Article on the deus ex machina is not yet fully written.
still needed: explanation and examples from antiquity incl. interpretations etc. pp.
Today the term deus ex machina is mostly used to describe a sudden, out-of-nowhere, sometimes improbable and always easy solution to a plot, which is often an anticlimactic and obnoxious experience for the audience, especially if the protagonist is artificially aided by external forces to escape from a seemingly hopeless situation. A modern deus ex machina can be introduced by one or several characters, e.g. a rescue team, by a general event, sometimes only loosely connected to a story, e.g. an earthquake, or by a special device, as it is often encountered in James Bond films. Depending on the narrative circumstances, murder or suicide can also function as a deus ex machina.
The term deus ex machina is sometimes erroneously applied either to an author's clumsy (or deliberate) violation of a story's internal logic or to a revelation of plot twists, which often means the untangling of a narrative.
Examples and parodies
- In Dante Alighieri's Commedia a being is sent from heaven to open the gates of Dis, the city of the dead, for Dante and Virgil to pass.
- In H. G. Wells' novel War of the Worlds the Martian invaders are unexpectedly killed by terrestrial microbes to which they have no immunity.
- The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill ends with a rousing musical performance that also parodies a deus ex machina: a messenger rides a white horse down the theater aisles onto the stage to announce that Queen Victoria has pardoned Mack the Knife, together with all other criminals throughout the land.
- A similar parody is found in The Pirates of Penzance by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert, where a comic musical number is used to inform the audience that all the pirates are pardoned and freed.
Examples in film
In film the deus ex machina device is often used, however in more subtle and disguised ways.
- A notable example is found in Patriot Games by W. Peter Iliff and Donald Stewart, where the antagonist, who is being pursued by Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) in a boat chase during the film's climax, first kills all his aides, before Ryan enters his boat. Here the screenwriters clearly paved the way for an unskillfully solved personal confrontation between protagonist and villain in order to bring the story to a quicker and less super-human ending.
- In Robert Altman's and Frank Barhydt's Short Cuts the earthquake concluding the film also functions in part as a deus ex machina, a narrative method copied for Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson, who tried to disguise his deus ex machina by creating connotations to the ten Biblical plagues.
- One of the most famous and technically faithful deus ex machina devices is the transporter in the Star Trek universe, a teleportation device often used by the characters (and writers) to elude conflicts.
- The character of Doctor Junju (David Oyelowo) in the film The Last King of Scotland by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock is identified as a very traditional deus ex machina, because he not only saves the film's hero, who otherwise would have faced his inevitable and logical death, but also displays divine and angelic features, being the only person of decency amid an inhuman world of corruption, torture and death. Furthermore he directly mentions god as the purpose of his actions and places his own life into god's hands.