Deus Ex Machina endings are so despised that people still use the Roman term from thousands of years ago, itself a translation from the older Greek, “God Out of the Machine”.
For those who’ve just tuned in to plot geekery and tropes: Imagine a Greek play, everybody in masks under a Mediterranean blue sky. The Furies are rejoicing, the hero is trapped by his enemies, the dilemmas are unsolvable and — WHOOSH! — a crane or a trapdoor-elevator — yes, a machine — literally plonks Apollo onto the stage and He — boringly — fixes everything.
These days, the Deus Ex Machin need not be a god — it can be the king, an airstrike, friendly aliens, whatever. We still make like confused crusaders and cry “Deus Ex!” because it’s a cheat ending: unearned victory or salvation is boring, and dodges the questions raised by the story.
However, Deus Ex Machina is not the only cheat ending. It has mutant cousins that often get a free pass because they ramp up the drama. Even so, they suck the life from stories by making them less rich.
Let’s call the first, “Boss out of the Box” and take Wonder Woman as an example (not because it’s a bad movie, but because we’ve all watched it). Spoilers after the cut.
So, Wonder Woman and “Boss in a Box.”
She tags Ludendorf as the God Ares in Disguise and goes on a heroic quest to take him out. Finally, she defeats him in an epic duel, only to find — twist! — she’s buffied a mere mortal and the war continues.
If only the movie had stopped there! It would have been perfect: Humans are flawed, human problems are complex, but humans are worth fighting for.
The filmmakers had to out another character as Ares, reducing the plot to Where’s Wally? (But With More Body Count). She has her second boss fight and slays the god. The war stops, but we know that wars in general continue (and continued after Armistice), so it’s not clear what threat she averted.
As my son “Kurtzhau”, then 14, put it:
The ending doesn’t belong. What does she learn? There’s no Ares and that makes sense, that there is and it doesn’t. The whole point of the movie is that humans are ****ed up but she’ll fight for them anyway. The critics (he means YouTubers — well he is 14) say the director wanted one thing but the studio just made them bolt on a boss fight.
So the full definition is…
“Boss out of a Box”: The story reaches a conclusion, but without enough pyrotechnics. Rather than go back and tweak to set up an ending that goes up to 11, the writers and/or filmmakers bolt on a twist that invalidates the story so far, but delivers a nice big battle at the end. E.g., the fight at the end of Sixth Sense where the boy turns out to be Satan, and Bruce Willis has to vanquish him in order to return to his own dimension and get his wife back.
There’s another one I’ll call, “Conscience in a Crate.”
I enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story right up until the end when (spoiler) one faction turned out to be a player in the Empire vs the Rebellion struggle. Thematically — did I just type that? — the main story arc ended when Han shot first, gunned down his mentor and flew off to be a cynical but engagingly cocky smuggler in need of a princess to redeem him.
But no, Disney couldn’t bring themselves to give us the genre-appropriate Space Noir ending. Instead, Conscience in a Crate arrives special delivery, and Han has to give up the McGuffin. A character who made that decision in his youth ought to appear in New Hope as a Rebellion operative.
“Conscience in a Crate”: The protagonist attains their morally dubious objectives, but the writers and/or filmmakers get cold feet. Rather than accept that this was the whole point of the story, or go back to set up the change of heart, they conjure up a chance for the protagonist to behave selflessly and railroad him or her into taking it. E.g., that moment at the end of The Italian Job where Michael Caine donates all the money to an orphanage.
These are all cinematic sins and scream too-many-cooks. I don’t think many authors are guilty of such cheat endings. However, there is one that seems to infect prose Space Opera in particular. I’m going to call it, “Apocalypse in the Mail,” and it’s been on my mind since I returned to writing my Eternal Dome series.
Without naming names, the story usually goes thus: Protagonists encounter Intriguing Cryptic Alien Mystery. They wrestle with the mystery, simultaneously struggling with human antagonists. Everything comes to a climax. Whether or not they were supposed to be extinct, the Cryptic Aliens manifest and do a Raiders of the Lost Ark. The protagonists naturally survive, but their jubilation is tempered by the revelation that a Great Doom is Coming. The Cryptic Aliens are working to protect or evacuate sentient life, which explains their, um, crypticity?
The most obvious problem with this is that it’s so common as to be more trope than cliche. I don’t think the next one is going to surprise, let alone shock, me. Like finding a gun fight in a Western.
However, even as a one-off, there are other problems.
Really, “Because the Apocalypse is in the Mail” is just not a very interesting answer to, “Why do you aliens do all this cryptic ****?”
Just as there are only three types of tyrants, there are a limited variety of Galactic-scale apocalypses (perhaps: die fast, die slow, mutate, become hosts, become slaves) and possible responses (fight, flight, pre-emptive self-annihilation, resignation, hibernation). There’s very little possibility of any threatened doom eliciting delighted horror.
Worse, it’s a very non-alien answer. The Cryptic Aliens turn out to be doing just what we’d do if we had the information and technology; they are not really so alien after all. The effect is about the same as backpacking to Chiang Mai and only getting as far as the local Irish theme bar.
“Apocalypse in the Mail”: We get to the big reveal of the motives of the cryptic aliens, but author can’t think of anything suitably alien. Instead, they opt for a generic existential threat that explains everything. E.g., the conclusion of Babylon 5 where the Shadows reveal that they were preparing humanity to resist the Daleks.
This particular cheat ending weighs heavily on my mind as I return to my series The Eternal Dome of the Unknowable. Sooner or later, Lucky Jim is going to shoot and swive his way to the mysterious Dome. What then? It had better live up to the hype…
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary-turned-archaeologist dealing with “local difficulties” as he pursues his quest across the galaxy. His other titles include Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)