I could go on and on about how there are 75 movie remakes and reboots currently in the works, but countless barrels of virtual ink have already been spilled on that topic. And I don’t want to talk about the annoying ubiquity of young hero sagas that employ the same mythological structure. You know the story; a lonely youngster doesn’t fit in, he’s told by a wise mentor that he’s destined for greater things, he discovers a secret power and/or secret world, he stumbles but eventually learns how to wield his power responsibly, and then he faces down his character’s antithesis. You’ve seen this story in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to the Matrix to pretty much every comic book movie ever made. Even Twilight is a variation on this theme, albeit a bad one. No, I want to specifically talk about Hollywood’s unfortunate fascination with twist endings and their growing comfort with Deus ex Machina.
Last week, the wife and I watched Shutter Island. I’d heard good things about it, so I was pretty excited to finally get it after being waitlisted for months on Netflix. <spoiler>When the main characters are being driven through the prison-like gate and onto the hospital grounds in the opening scene, I looked at the wife and said, “so, do you think he’s the crazy one and this is all in his mind?”</spoiler> With 30 minutes left to go in the film, the wife looked at me, said “this sucks,” and went to bed. She was right. The “big reveal” at the end of these movies isn’t as revelatory as it once was.
This storyline has run its course. In movies like Shutter Island, Total Recall, The Matrix, The Neverending Story, et al, the ending reveals that everything that’s happened up until now has been a fantasy/diversion/journey of self discovery. The initial meeting/partnership with the co-star was no accident, the shared experiences were destined, and their journey was explicitly designed to get the star or co-star to “open up/grow up.” So many films rely on this arc that I’m amazed anyone is surprised by the climax anymore. Sure, there are variations on this basic plot structure, but it’s too easy to see it coming.
More often than not, these movies go in a certain direction that’s entertaining and then they veer onto another course that confuses the viewer. I’m sure many viewers simply accept the plot turn as an unpredictable twist, but people like me
want need to make the twists and turns fit logically as well as aesthetically. It’s like we’ve been slowly hypnotized by the storyline and suddenly someone snaps their fingers, waking us from the carefully crafted dreamworld. This is intellectually lazy and it’s avoidable. In most cases, the writers/directors are just copying an outline from another successful movie and the twist-ending fails to translate to their project. In the worst cases, writers/directors have insulted the intelligence of their audience by employing Deus ex Machina.
The term [Deus ex Machina] is Latin for god out of the machine, and has its origins in Greek theater. It refers to situations in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right. It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up.
There are four primary forms a Deus Ex Machina can take:
- Total Deus Ex Machina. A plot element that didn’t previously exist and has no logical explanation behind it. Let’s say the hero has been pummeled to an inch of his life and the villain has regained control of his gun. The hero then finds a magical remote control under a nearby couch that allows him to pause the scene, take the gun away, and shoot the villain.
- Illogical placement and timing Deus Ex Machina. When something is established and explained in the work, but its use in that situation is jarring and impossible to believe. Building from the example above, let’s say that instead of a magical remote, the local militia bursts in and shoots the villain. Maybe it was established earlier that the militia protects the countryside, but for them to somehow divine that there is a fight going on at this isolated farm and to burst in just in time to save the day is a Deus Ex Machina.
- Cut and paste Deus Ex Machina. When Chekhovs Gun is quick-drawn, but it’s done in a clumsy way that makes one realize that the author obviously just couldn’t write them out of the situation with what they have, so they went back to some earlier point and put in one or two throwaway lines to set up a victory down the road. From the example above, perhaps the hero randomly decided to put a tiny pistol in one of his pockets and just happened to forget that he had it until now.
- Fridge Brilliance. When something seems to be a Deus Ex Machina, but really isn’t. The writers were just a bit too clever for their own good. To build from the above, let’s say that in some early scene the hero intentionally rigged his gun to blow up should it ever be fired and it both fits with his personality and seems like a logical thing he would do. It might seem like a cop-out at first, but one then remembers he’s a Technical Pacifist who Doesn’t Like Guns and never wants to fire one in his life in spite of his job. See also Chekhovs Gun.
The worst offender of Deus ex Machina I’ve ever seen was in The Forgotten. <spoiler>In that film, kids are being abducted and no one seems to notice because when the kids disappear, so do people’s memories of them. The only person who sees the truth is Julianne Moore’s character. She battles the authorities who she expects are behind the kidnappings and the subsequent cover-ups. It builds to tense conclusion when, out of the blue, the director plays the alien card. I turned off the movie. At no point had aliens come into play in the rising action. As far as we viewers were concerned, aliens did not exist in the world of The Forgotten. It was like God came down from the heavens and screamed, “because I said so.”</spoiler> It was infuriating.
Another example is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. <spoiler>Near the end of that film, everything has gone wrong for our young heroes when, out of the blue, Hermione reveals a time machine. Excuse me? Isn’t that just a little convenient? And isn’t it a dangerous precedent to set in the storyline? Every dangerous moment that takes place from here on out will have the audience asking, “why doesn’t she just stop time again?” And don’t even get started on the “why doesn’t she go back in time to when Voldemort is a baby” line of reasoning. To put it simply, the heroine pulled out the perfect tool that had gone unmentioned until the end of the film. The tool just so happened to unravel the plot that had been building for the past hour. It’s the literary/cinematic equivalent of yelling “do over!”</spoiler> This is prime example of Cut & Paste Deus ex Machina and the audience deserves better. (Actually, J.K. Rowling is guilty of building a very poor premise for her fantasy world. If people can conjure things out of thin air at no expense, then why are the Weasleys poor? Why are some brooms faster than others? I could go on, but you get the point.)
Not all suspense movies with twist endings use Deus ex Machina. For example, M. Night Shyamalan is very careful to always introduce his plot devices before the third act, so to speak. That doesn’t mean his stories don’t follow the usual plot structure mentioned above, just that he avoids the pitfalls of Deus ex Machina. <spoiler>For example, the glasses of water strewn around the living room at the end of Signs are the perfect weapon at the perfect time. But if you remember, Shyamalan introduced the daughter’s obsessive compulsion with drinking water earlier. He also suggested that the aliens avoided water and built on an underlying theme of predestination thoughout the film.</spoiler> It all made perfect sense in the end, and that’s why it worked.
I only see two or three movies per year in the theater. I just don’t think you get enough bang for your buck. Because of the wife, most of the movies we see on the big screen involve sparkling emo vampires and juvenile magicians. Tonight I’m going to see Inception. If it’s as bad a Shutter Island, I’m swearing off suspense films for the foreseeable future.
UPDATE: I was pleasantly surprised by Inception. The cast worked well together (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s physical performance was very good) and the plot was well developed. The director was good at establishing rules, limits and historical precedents in the dream world, and the story pretty much existed within those limitations. I really liked the way the story took place on several planes simultaneously, but like I’ve said before, I love movies that play around with time. I even liked the way the backstory was intermittently revealed throughout the timeline. It can be hard to pull that off. The Fountain tried and failed in my opinion, even though the movie was pretty good overall.