We here in the fancy, cavier-filled world of online movie criticism know that the phrase “Deus Ex Machina” is Latin for “He Who Smelt It, Dealt It,” a concept that can apply to the endings of a number of great films.
Despite the wealth of creativity brimming in Hollywood, some filmmakers run out of steam at the end, and, like some sort of God from a Machine floating down from the Heavens, a solution falls right into the lap of the hero at the darkest hour.
Here in the 21st Century, we have a new phrase for it: the Cop Out. So, in a particular order, FSR presents the Seven Greatest Movies with Cop Out Endings.
7. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
It’s infinitely quotable, has Ben Stiller in spandex, and features Rip Torn throwing wrenches at people, but despite its comic ingenuity, it falls prey to the dreaded Cop Out at the end. Peter La Fleur and the evil White Goodman are the last men standing in the do-or-die Dodgeball Championship. La Fleur’s gym and income are on the line, but he’s eliminated with a solid throw from Goodman. When it turns out Goodman had a foot fault, the match goes to Sudden Death where La Fleur finally triumphs. The real Deus Ex Machina comes when La Fleur tells the crew that 1) Average Joe’s were a 50-1 long-shot, 2) He bet the $100,000 Goodman paid him for the gym on Average Joe’s and 3) Since the payout is $5 million, he suddenly has (exactly) enough money to buy controlling shares in the company. The gym is saved! It’s an explosion of math that hits the audience so fast we have no choice but to (happily) go along with it. The filmmakers were even kind enough to write “Deus Ex Machina” on the treasure chest holding the money at the end for us.
6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
It seems like the Cop Out is especially used in Science-Fiction. It makes sense – Scifi deals strictly in the suspension of technological disbelief, and often times, new rules are needed right at the end to make everything work out for the best. Geeks finally got their wish when Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was finally adapted (by the man himself) for the big screen. The film starts by brazenly blowing up the Earth. For the rest of the adventure, our heroes Trillian and Arthur lament the loss of their home, but just as they contemplate moving on, they find out that a new one is being built! Exactly like the old one! Because we have that technology here in the future! The whole crew gets to check out the construction in a breath-taking sequence. Although it does solve a major problem (for the characters and the audience), it doesn’t quite solve everything, as Arthur has to stop two mice and an army of disgusting Vogons. So, perhaps it’s not a true Deus Ex Machina for the story, but it certainly returns everything to normal in a technologically improbable jiffy.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Almost every Potterfest has employed the use of the Cop Out in one sense or another, but HarPoatProAz (as I’ve cleverly shortened it) stands out as the worst offender. Ron is badly injured, Buckbeak has been beheaded, Sirius is imprisoned, the bad guys are still on the loose, Darth Vader has chopped off Luke’s hand and Harry still hasn’t gotten to snog a girl. It’s going to be alright, though, because wizened old fool Dumbledore slyly suggests they go back in time to fix everything. Luckily, Hermione, despite never mentioning it before, has just such a device that would allow for such a thing! They head back along the temporal-plane, save Buckbeak, free Sirius, make out for a while and get back to Ron’s hospital room just in time for alternate realities to line up nicely. What could have been a sad ending turned out beautifully (except for Ron, who’s still injured) thanks to God in the Time Turner.
4. Shakespeare in Love
Say what you will about this Academy Award Winner – namely that it didn’t deserve its Academy Award – but it’s still a solid film. Plus, it gives us the most classic example of the Cop Out in recent history. In Greek dramas, a God would float down and make everything all better, but in Shakespeare in Love, it’s Queen Elizabeth. Despite getting married, Viola escapes her husband’s clutches in time to play Juliet on stage with Old Bill Shakespeare, the man she loves, playing Romeo. Since women doing anything but creating babies and cooking stew was illegal, the whole crew now risks swinging by the neck instead of just bankruptcy. But wait! Since Queen Elizabeth was hiding in the audience, and since she’s a woman, she pardons everyone and repeals the sexist law! Huzzah!
3. Superman: The Movie
The Man of Steel. A perfect, shining example of power and speed and morality. His only two weaknesses are an obscure mineral from an alien world and the dreaded Cop Out. Superman’s turn on the big screen in 1978 proved to be a critical and commercial success. When the super hero falls prey to the diabolical Lex Luthor and his kryptonite collection, he fails to stop a missile headed for the San Andreas fault line. An earthquake ensues killing crowds of people, including his beloved Lois Lane. As the credits should have rolled on a devastated Supey, his eyes perk up, and he suddenly remembers he has the ability to fly so quickly that the Earth’s rotation will reverse itself. As we all know, that makes time go backward. Seriously. With the quick fix, Superman is able to save the day, battle the baddies and make sure they go through the incredibly fair, American criminal justice system.
2. Jurassic Park
Dodgson! We have Dodgson here! Sorry, Mr. Spielberg, but even you aren’t safe from the sabre-toothed beast, the Deus Ex Machina. This movie is still an icon, an incredible feat of filmmaking that introduced the world to awe-inspiring dinosaurs and the magic of Jeff Goldblum all over again. It also brought audiences dangerously close to raptors, the hyper-intelligent, quick-footed hunters that trap Dr. Grant and the gang. After a heart-pounding chase scene, Grant, Dr. Sattler and the two cute kids find themselves surrounded by the nightmare thunder-lizards in the lobby of the visitor’s center. After evading all that danger, there’s no way our heroes and those innocent kids could die, so just as the lead raptor lunges, it’s snagged by an unseen T-Rex. That’s right. A 13,000 pound dinosaur with a deafening roar that could shake a small tide pool from miles away sneaks unseen into the visitor’s center within chomping range. Phew! Without this massive Deus Rex Machina (that’s right, I said it), the whole clan wouldn’t have made it back to the helicopter in time to wistfully look out on a flock of pelicans. The lack of a better escape from danger that’s being displayed here, uh…staggers me.
1. The Wizard of Oz
Most movies get away with one Cop Out, but The Wizard of Oz has not one, not two, but three sweet cop outs in a row. The icon probably would have won Best Picture in 1939 if not for Gone With the Wind, but it deserves another award for having the most cop outs of any other film on the AFI Top Ten List. Dorothy skips her way through a Technicolor dream world, defeating the evil Wicked Witch of the West, instilling gifts upon her new friends, but still unable to return home. In the first Cop Out, The Wizard invites her to hop in his hot air balloon that happens to go to Kansas – a very tangible version of The God from the Machine floating up into the sky. Something goes wrong, and Dorothy is left behind. Luckily, Cop Out #2 is waiting on her heels as the Good Witch explains that she’s had the power to go home…the whole time! She could have stayed off the Yellow Brick Road altogether! So we fade out, back into the black and white world of the Midwest. Despite the denouement, filmmakers decided to make the whole thing a dream. Dorothy wakes up safe and sound, having never traveled into harm’s way in the first place.
Even the best movies aren’t safe from the Cop Out. Academy Award Winners. Cultural icons. And maybe it’s for the greater good. After all, they’re only evoking the glorious dramatic heritage of Ancient Greece. Or the writers were being lazy. Either way, they’ve given us some classically easy endings to some of our favorite films.