Deus ex machina
A deus ex machina (pronounced [ˈdeus eks ˈmaː.kʰi.na], / / or / /; from Latin, meaning "god from the machine"; plural: dei ex machina) is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has "painted himself into a corner" and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring a happy ending into the tale, or as a comedic device.
The Latin phrase deus ex machina, from deus, meaning "a god", ex, meaning "from", and machine, meaning "a device, a scaffolding, an artifice", is a calque from Greek ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός (apò mēkhanḗs theós), meaning "god from the machine". Such a device was referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a "god from the machine" to resolve their plots. He was referring to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above, or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.
The Greek tragedian Euripides is often criticized for his frequent use of the deus ex machina. More than half of Euripides's extant tragedies employ a deus ex machina in their resolution, and some critics go so far as to claim that Euripides invented it, although Aeschylus employed a similar device in his Eumenides. In Euripides' play Alcestis, the eponymous heroine agrees to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband, Admetus. At the end Heracles shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death, restoring her to life and to Admetus. A more frequently cited example is Euripides' Medea in which the deus ex machina, a dragon-drawn chariot sent by the Sun-God, is used to convey his granddaughter Medea, who has just committed murder and infanticide, away from her husband Jason to the safety and civilization of Athens. In Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae the playwright parodies Euripides' frequent use of the crane by making Euripides himself a character in the play and bringing him on stage by way of the mekhane.
Perhaps the earliest recorded critical reference to this device is in Plato's dialogue "Cratylus," 425d, though it is made in the context of an argument unrelated to drama.
In the characters too, exactly as in the structure of the incidents, [the poet] ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable, so that it is either necessary or probable that a person of such-and-such a sort say or do things of the same sort, and it is either necessary or probable that this [incident] happen after that one. It is obvious that the solutions of plots too should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance, as in the Medea and in the passage about sailing home in the Iliad. A contrivance must be used for matters outside the drama—either previous events which are beyond human knowledge, or later ones that need to be foretold or announced. For we grant that the gods can see everything. There should be nothing improbable in the incidents; otherwise, it should be outside the tragedy, e.g., that in Sophocles' Oedipus.—Aristotle, Poetics (1454a33-1454b9)
Aristotle praised Euripides, however, for generally ending his plays with bad fortune, which he viewed as correct in tragedy, and somewhat excused the intervention of a deity by suggesting that "astonishment" should be sought in tragic drama:
Irrationalities should be referred to what people say: that is one solution, and also sometimes that it is not irrational, since it is probable that improbable things will happen.
A deus ex machina is generally deemed undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic (although it is sometimes deliberately used to do this) and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though perhaps more palatable, ending. Following Aristotle, Renaissance critics continued to view the deus ex machina as an inept plot device, although it continued to be employed by Renaissance dramatists; Shakespeare used the device in As You Like It, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche criticized Euripides for making tragedy an optimistic genre via use of the device and was highly skeptical of the "Greek cheerfulness," prompting what he viewed as the plays' "blissful delight in life." The deus ex machina, as Nietzsche saw it, was symptomatic of Socratic culture that valued knowledge over Dionysiac music and ultimately caused the death of tragedy:
But the new non-Dionysiac spirit is most clearly apparent in the endings of the new dramas. At the end of the old tragedies there was a sense of metaphysical conciliation without which it is impossible to imagine our taking delight in tragedy; perhaps the conciliatory tones from another world echo most purely in Oedipus at Colonus. Now, once tragedy had lost the genius of music, tragedy in the strictest sense was dead: for where was that metaphysical consolation now to be found? Hence an earthly resolution for tragic dissonance was sought; the hero, having been adequately tormented by fate, won his well-earned reward in a stately marriage and tokens of divine honour. The hero had become a gladiator, granted freedom once he had been satisfactorily flayed and scarred. Metaphysical consolation had been ousted by the deus ex machina.—Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche argues that the deus ex machina creates a false sense of consolation that ought not to be sought in phenomena. His denigration of the plot device has prevailed in critical opinion.
Some 20th-century revisionist criticism suggests that the deus ex machina cannot be viewed in these simplified terms and argues rather that the device allows mortals to "probe" their relationship with the divine. Rush Rehm in particular cites examples of Greek tragedy in which the deus ex machina serves to complicate the lives and attitudes of characters confronted by the deity whilst simultaneously bringing the drama home to its audience.
During the politically turbulent 17th and 18th centuries, the deus ex machina was sometimes used to make a controversial thesis more palatable to the powers of the day. For example, in the final scene of Molière's play Tartuffe, the heroes are saved from a terrible fate by an agent of the compassionate, all-seeing king—the same king that held Molière's career and livelihood in his hands.
In The Return of the King in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the ending where Sam and Frodo, having journeyed across Middle-earth for months to reach Mount Doom, has been criticized for them being suddenly rescued by eagles and taken back to Minas Tirith. This is parodied in Bored of the Rings, where the characters Frito and Spam are rescued by an aircraft from "Deus Ex Machina Airlines."
The classic novel Lord of the Flies uses a deus ex machina in its conclusion when the savage children are rescued by a passing navy officer. The author William Golding uses this technique to convey to the audience the terrible fate which would have afflicted the children (in particular Ralph) if the officer had not arrived at that moment.
Sometimes, the unlikeliness of the deus ex machina plot device is employed deliberately. For example, comic effect is created in a scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian when Brian, who lives in Judea in 33AD, is 'rescued' from a high fall by a passing space ship.
In the 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite, two unresolved plot points are resolved when a disabled helicopter drops from the sky and introduces the character Linda to her husband (providing her with true love) who will then believe he fathered Lenny's child (covering up her past). Because the film is presented as a Greek play, complete with an amphitheater and a mask-wearing chorus, this is an intentional allusion and employment of a deus ex machina.
Likewise, a deus ex machina was used as a pivotal plot device in the film Adaptation. When the main character seeks screen-writing advice from a veteran of the film industry, he advises, 'Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina.' A deus ex machina is later employed in the film, in the form of an alligator attack that saves the main character's life.
At the end of the 2001 film Donnie Darko, Donnie whispers deus ex machina to the film's antagonist right as a runaway Pontiac Trans Am kills the film's heroine. This instills Donnie with the motivation to abandon his current reality, and to go back in time to save his family and the world, and ultimately to sacrifice himself.
Tim Burton uses this writing method in his 2001 re-creation of Planet of the Apes. At the end of the great battle between the humans and the apes, the humans come to a point of near defeat, when suddenly a bright flash covers the sky and a pod lands. When it opens and there is a chimp in a space suit, all the apes bow down and call the chimp 'Semos' (the name of their ape god).
The ending of (Indiana Jones and) The Raiders of the Lost Ark ends, literally, with God coming out of the sky and saving the protaganist. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have yet to state whether their intention was to spoof the Deus Ex Machina device in Raider's climactic scene. Whether or not it was intentional, its blatant use could be seen as a wink and a nod to critics of the device.
In The Simpsons episode "Thank God, It's Doomsday", Homer asks God to undo the apocalypse, and God replies that he can, and remarks 'Deus ex machina' as he turns back time. The joke was that this divine intervention is indeed a 'deus ex machina' ('deus' meaning 'god' in Latin).
In Mitchell, the 12th episode of season five of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel is saved from being killed off (An incorrect assumption by Gypsy) near the end of the episode by being jettisoned in an escape pod called the "deus ex machine", an obvious joke on the part of the writers.
Deus Ex Machina is also a character in the manga and anime Future Diary (Mirai Nikki). He represents the god of space-time and forces 12 humans to fight to the death in the anime, the victor would take his place as god. Both the manga and anime frequently utilize deus ex machina (the plot device).
The video game series Deus Ex plays heavily on the theme of deus ex machina. Here, the protagonists of the games - controlled by the player - are said to be the element of deus ex machina by way of using the powers conferred by their mechanical/nanotechnological augmentations so as to affect the balance of power in a conflict from the outside in such a way as to be akin to a god.
Another well known example of deliberately used 'deus ex machina' is the Infinite Improbability Drive in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is presented as a technology used for travelling faster than light, based on probability concepts in quantum theory. It is the infinite improbability drive that saves Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from very probable death by asphyxiation in deep space after being thrown out of the Vogon ship; the improbable odds against being rescued being 2276709 to one.
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