Deus ex machina: would you like a god from the machine or maybe you'd prefer something a little more subtle?
I watched The Fugitive (1993) last night and was struck by a brilliantly disguised deus ex machina scene.
On the run from the police and trying to prove his innocence, Dr Richard Kimble (played by Han Solo), pretends to be a hospital porter to gain access to a hospital’s records. In a tense set piece, Han Solo sneaks around the hospital trying to find the info, terrified that at any minute the hospital staff will discover he doesn’t work there and report him to the police.
He finally succeeds in getting the info and attempts to sneak back out of the hospital, but is delayed by the arrival of a group of injured children, all having been involved in a rather gruesome accident. As he watches the patients being delivered, he witnesses a critically injured boy get misdiagnosed by an overworked doctor.
Meanwhile… Deputy Samuel Gerard (played by Major Chip Hazard) has found the lodgings where Han Solo has been hiding out and is having a rummage through Han’s belongings.
Back in the hospital… Dr Han Solo’s heroically hippocratic instinct overrides his personal concerns and he delays his escape from the hospital to wheel the boy down to surgery, effectively saving the boy’s life (hurrah!)
As we watch Han Solo save the little boy (yippee!) we cut to Major Chip Hazard discovering that Han Solo had recently made a fake ID card for that very hospital.
But back in the hospital...
Now that Han Solo has saved the boy (woohoo!) and has the relevant info safely tucked in his pocket (yippee!), he is about to sneak out of the hospital when a doctor (played by Maude Lebowski) intercepts Han and questions his identity. Han Solo panics, confirming Maude Lebowski’s suspicions, and she grabs his ID pass and calls security, which prompts Han Solo to hotfoot it out the back entrance of the hospital. Runaway, runaway! It is at this moment we see *for the first time* lots of police assembled outside the front of the hospital.
Here’s where screenwriters Jeb Stuart and David Twohy excelled themselves. Rather than just chuck in a typical thriller deus ex machina where the fugitive conveniently gets wind of/spots the police just before they spot him, the writers shun such typically lazy shenanigans and brilliantly set the deus ex machina BEFORE the moment of conflict.
Han Solo manages to evade capture by Major Chip Hazard because of Maude Lebowski. But at no point does this feel like we’ve been hammered over the head with a rather convenient deus ex machina, for the simple and clever reason that Maude’s intervention happens *before* we see Han’s major problem. Maude’s intervention in that moment IS Han’s problem. If we had been aware of the police waiting outside the front of the hospital before Maude scared him into running out of the back of the hospital, the scene would have felt much too convenient and stuck in our throats like peanut butter smothered weetabix.
Also, very importantly, that set piece denouement is cleverly foreshadowed throughout the whole hospital set piece, showing Han Solo continually nervous that one of the hospital staff will challenge him and blow his cover, and also showing Maude Lebowski being suspicious on initially seeing Han wheel the little boy away. The extra clever twist to Maude challenging Han Solo as he’s about to walk out of the hospital is that she does so - crucially! - because of him; because Han Solo’s earlier actions (saving the little boy’s life - wahey!) brought him to the attention of Maude Lebowski in the first place. Karma, baby! Han’s altruism has been the instrument of his own destiny and subsequent survival. If he had just minded his own business and looked out for himself, he wouldn’t have drawn attention to himself and would have walked out that hospital unchallenged, straight into the waiting arms and handcuffs of Major Chip Hazard. What a shit ending to the film that would have been.
But instead, Han Solo avoided Major Chip Hazard because of Maude Lebowski - and all because Han Solo himself set that very intervention in motion by actively raising Maude’s suspicions enough to inspire her to act of her own accord. Voila!
And there you have it. One way to remove painful coincidences/deus ex machina from your plotting is by placing the coincidence/deus ex machina before the protagonist encounters his or her obstacle. Give us the answer before raising the question! :)
“The art of theatre is the art of preparation.” once bellowed Alexandre Dumas Fils.
Bien parlé, Alex, mon ami. Bien parlé!