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How to Spot a Deus Ex Machina: The Narrative Trope Explained

Here’s a video essay that explains the narrative device, its strengths, and its weaknesses.

Jurassic Park Deus Ex MachinaUniversal Pictures

By Meg Shields · Published on October 13th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on the storytelling device known as deus ex machina.

All hope is lost and our tenacious hero is cornered. After all their valiant exploits, it has come to this: certain death, insurmountable odds, and a no-win situation. Then, out of nowhere: a godsend. Maybe it’s a T-rex coming out of nowhere to munch on some pesky velociraptors a la Jurassic Park. Or maybe it’s Superman (in the 1978 film) realizing he can turn back time by flying around the Earth super fast. Or maybe it’s the alien invasion in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds being snuffed out in the 11th hour by the common cold.

Not all deus ex machina are created equal. But it’s important to know how to spot the plot contrivance in order to differentiate its more permissible iterations. The term, while Latin, is ancient Greek in origin. In Attic tragedies, performers playing gods would descend from platforms run by pully systems. And while “god from the machine” is no longer so literal, narrative get out of jail free cards exist to this day.

Generally speaking, such plot devices are signs of cheap, lazy, and overly convenient writing. And while they differ in scale and sinfulness, they tend to fall into the same broad categories: the cavalry coming to the rescue; unknown information saving the day last minute, and pure coincidence, to name a few.

But as the video essay below argues, some deus ex machina deserve a pass. Explicitly calling out a convenient plot contrivance for what it is can buy you some grace. And, done right, there’s nothing wrong with weaponizing your genre’s conventions to deploy a day-saving twist. For a more thorough look at the plot convenience, how to identify it, and when to give it a pass, check out the video essay below.

Watch “What is Deus Ex Machina — The “God From the Machine” Plot Device Explained”:

Who made this?

This video about how to spot a deus ex machina was created by StudioBinder, a production management software creator that also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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Related Topics: The Queue

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).

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