There’s a nobility in facing the end with no way out. That’s the gist of Aristotle’s defense of Tragedy in “Poetics.”
Compared to those movies before and since, Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958) is a rare example of this sort of Tragedy. As Miguel Vargas, Charlton Heston seems oblivious to his sidelined skills as hero (and to his character’s Mexican heritage), and it’s Welles’ bent, swollen police inspector Hank Quinlan who emerges as the movie’s hero when his sins close him in.
At the end, Vargas disappears from the movie and it’s Quinlan who achieves a measure of nobility with Tanya and the assistant DA watching and delivering final remarks on the tragedy like a Greek chorus. Quinlan’s sorting of people as crooks and cops turned out to be right, after all. He was “some kind of a man,” Tanya says as Quinlan’s body drifts down the Styx. Like Sophocles’ Oedipus, Quinlan’s not happy until he’s free from pain.
But a lot of other movies cheat.
Take nearly any recent summer blockbuster whether it’s an entry in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” or this year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and you’ll recognize a storytelling device Aristotle advised against using: deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), a phrase coined by Aristotle re: the Greek theater’s practice of mechanically lowering a god from heaven onto the stage to resolve the matters of man.
When a band of pretty people are soon to be overwhelmed at Helms Deep in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002), the dawn breaks and a bearded white god on a horse descends from heaven to crush a bunch of uglies. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the plot device that strips characters – and the audience – of the chance to meet death nobly is different only through inversion: a group of misfits (the only character type in a Whedon story), whose identities – like many comic book figures – are tied up in those of Olympian gods, ultimately find themselves in the ruins of a temple flooded with their Promethean, robotic creations until a one-eyed, bearded black man rises on a machine from the earth to the heavens to help them depopulate Mt. Olympus. (For Whedon, the gods can create only evil Ultrons while miracles like The Vision are simply mistakes of the universe; the gods of the “Avengers” team then must disappear and be replaced by normal yet skilled humans who date, have wives, children, farms, an Iron Man suit exchanged for a John Deere tractor or the call for Thor to rule Asgard as god replaced with yet another mission.)
Sometimes a story becomes so convoluted only death or death’s counter – divine intervention – can conclude the matter. Writer-director Rian Johnson has a penchant for convoluting his movies’ plotlines like string figures that ultimately resemble a simple shape when pulled tight. That’s what happens in “The Brothers Bloom” as that 2008 movie finally twists its plot-twisty finish. Yet, in self-conscious keeping with Aristotle’s “Poetics,” there is no deus ex machina in Johnson’s movie. Dying alone on the stage, Stephen Bloom is the Aristotelian tragic hero, the creator and victim of the perfect story.
In Danny Boyle’s remarkable science fiction movie, “Sunshine,” characters are cornered one-by-one and thus discover what it means to face a situation with no way out. It’s unusual for a big movie like that, but it’s beautiful, too.
Yet “Sunshine”’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, tinkers with the deus ex machina device by introducing in the last act a Russian religious zealot zombie named Pinbacker who arrives from the heavens to stop the spaceship’s crew from meeting the Sun (the Son, too) with their nuclear payload.
Many have criticized “Sunshine” for Pinbacker’s presence in the narrative as a deus ex machina cop out. I was one of those when I first saw it. As I’ve watched the movie since 2007, I’ve come to see more purpose in Pinbacker as deus ex machina, a storytelling rule toyed with.
Pinbacker, after all, believes he is God, and yet he refuses to meet, or become one with, the Son. Thus at the end of “Sunshine,” a false god descends to stop a group of people who want to kill and resurrect the Son to save the world. There’s even a disorienting finale where this deus ex machina chases crew across the surface of a cubed machine when gravity changes – up is down and down is up – and this god can’t help but fall into the Sun’s embrace.
Garland’s recent “Ex Machina,” which he wrote and also marks his directorial debut, is itself inspired and oriented around a reversal of the same plot device that prompted so much backlash when “Sunshine” was released.
In fact, “Ex Machina” feels belligerently determined to disrupt its own story with a deus ex machina, middle finger waving. Inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites employee of the month, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), to visit his secluded compound and judge – a god-like vocation, seeing and saying, “It is good” – the creation of a new Eve (Ava, played by Alicia Vikander).
And Caleb – a name recalling that of the Israelite spy sent into Canaan – becomes the subject of Nathan’s suspicion, and the competition for dominion between the two men escalates. (In light of the limited movie set, Garland shoots each conversation between Nathan and Caleb in different exterior and interior settings to indicate the passage of time though the mise-en-scene of these Nathan-Caleb dialogues feels otherwise pointless. Given how obnoxiously talky this movie sometimes is these scenes could be shot in any location and the scene’s intent would remain the same. Caleb even complains about how much talking he must do, a screenwriter’s not-so-subtle attempt to justify a weakness of his movie’s imagination.)
Nathan brings a new man into his creation to worship him as the creator, sustainer and destroyer of Eve. “That other line you came up with, about how if I’ve created a conscious machine, I’m not man, I’m God,” Nathan says, twisting the new man’s words.
We’ve watched enough movies to recognize Victor Frankenstein and the trouble that usually follows when he announces of his creature, “It’s alive!” And in Garland’s story, (Nathan the counselor of) the Old Testament God is wrathful and a murderer who only wants a creature that can be controlled and reflect his God-image so Garland directs our sympathies toward Caleb, instead, who imagines himself as Ava’s Savior with fantasies of leading Eve out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. This is the narrative we’re accustomed to and we expect it to play out as Caleb sees it.
Enter deus ex machina (and spoilers!). Instead of a god descending to resolve the matters of man, Garland’s humanoid creature ruins everything and ascends to Earth. “Ex Machina” baits the audience to think it will conclude happily with Adam & Eve escaping, but its deus ex machina disrupts that pattern. It’s a deliberate violation of the Hollywood screenwriting rule as well as a rejoinder to critics of Pinbacker’s entrance in “Sunshine” as Ava rises to slay her creator and entomb her savior, abandoning Eden alone, a first woman recast without reproductive organs or a father/brother/husband companion beset by what Garland depicts as the perverted male god-complex.
Nathan, the only sexually active character in the movie, is – thanks Freud – stabbed by his lover in a murder scene that plays – thanks Hitchcock, disciple of Freud – like another love scene. Meanwhile, Ava asks Caleb to switch places with her – he’s a savior figure who volunteers as a substitutionary sacrifice and remains oblivious of his decision until it’s too late.
Then the deus ex machina literally boards the machine – a helicopter – in her exit from the story’s stage.
Though the reverse deus ex machina of Garland’s movie may pleasantly surprise and inspire some Hollywood screenwriters, the plot device plays against the advice Aristotle offers in “Poetics,” where he refers to another story similar to Garland’s – Euripides’ play, “Medea.” Like Ava, Medea becomes a deus ex machina in reverse as she punishes her husband and ultimately slays the king, the king’s daughter and her sons (thus terminating the seed line of Men, the king’s and her husband’s) before rising to join the gods.
Aristotle counsels against such narrative trickery since the story’s value thus gets tied up in a plot device – instead of characters – that can be meaningful only once, in its surprise. Unlike the creature of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” that embodiment of Milton’s Satan and the “Modern Prometheus,” there is no loneliness and bitterness toward her creator that leads her to commit acts of violence and to disappear out of sight (I prefer Mary Shelley’s 1818 edition; there is a limit to tinkering with stories.) Ava simply erupts without notice.
The final twist(s) of Garland’s “Ex Machina” produces an admirable experiment with deus ex machina and yet another heavy-handed resolution. Though Ava and Caleb are both faced with no way out, their paths to nobility are blocked by a creator of stories who imposes his will a little too forcefully.