Beware of Deus ex Machina

The phrase “deus ex machina” literally translates as “god from the machine” and is most often associated with ancient plays where the hero would get stuck in a situation that he or she couldn’t resolve so the gods descend from the skies and save him or her.

This always creates an unsatisfying conclusion because just as the tension ratchets up to a peak, a solution out of nowhere deflates that tension and feels like cheating.

That’s the problem with nearly all mediocre movies including “The 355,” “Mortal Engines,” and the latest “Fast X.”

If you haven’t seen any of the previous “Fast and Furious” movies, “Fast X” may not make much sense since the movie assumes you already know about the many characters introduced. This immediately makes “Fast X” less than satisfying because it doesn’t feel like a complete movie. Instead of learning about a new story, we really should watch the previous movies in the series to understand this one.

Even worse, “Fast X” constantly pulls situations out of thin air to help characters, even the villain. There’s a scene where an army of soldiers invades a home to capture a little boy. Suddenly the little boy’s uncle magically appears, beats up all the soldiers, and saves the little boy.

By not setting up the idea that this uncle might appear, this sudden appearance of the uncle to rescue the boy feels unsatisfying and incomplete.

Another example occurs when the villain has been chasing the hero and finally traps the hero on a dam. Suddenly the villain reveals he has two remote control trucks, packed with explosives, that will gradually close in on the hero.

How the hero suddenly had two remote controlled trucks at his disposal, especially when he had no idea the hero would make it to the dam in the first place, is another example of deus ex machina where something magically appears out of nowhere to supposedly create greater tension and suspense.

It doesn’t work.

What creates suspense is setting up an idea ahead of time and then showing how it logically appears. What never works is suddenly introducing something new to save a character.

Don’t surprise us with people who come out of nowhere to rescue someone for no apparent reason. This is a sure way to weaken any story.

Deus ex machina should have disappeared centuries ago but it’s still popping up with disturbing regularity in the latest Hollywood movies. Avoid this and you can’t help but write stronger and better screenplays.

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