In January of 1993, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and was picked up by Columbia Pictures. A month later, it was released in theaters, grossing over $2 million at the domestic box office, an anomaly for a film made for a mere $7,000. At the time a director with no formal training, Rodriguez served as a beacon for the independent spirit, even writing Rebel Without a Crew in 1996, a book recounting his initial success and subsequent collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. This week, Rodriguez’s Machete Kills opens in theaters, but the film reveals the filmmaker to be far removed from his independent and creative origins.
Rodriguez appears content to make sequels of his own hits: Machete Kills marks his sixth, and next year will bring a second installment in the Sin City franchise. Such practices are certainly not uncommon in Hollywood, nor were they uncommon to the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, which Rodriguez has clearly modeled so much of his work after. As Ian Olney explains in his recent book Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, Hollywood stole distribution tactics from B-film production studios, such as saturated openings, while also recognizing the viability of cheap sequels to accompany these methods, where films could make so much money in one weekend, as to become profitable, that whether or not audiences actually liked the film ended up being an afterthought.
In what sense, then, is Machete Kills not simply that: a cash-in sequel meant to make fast money? At least, nothing about its trailers or marketing campaign suggest ingenuity so much as cultural cynicism—the idea that viewers will pay to see the same film over and over again. At this point, Rodriguez appears less tongue-in-cheek about the intent of his films than simply adhering to the worst clichés of creatively bankrupt filmmaking.
These developments become especially glaring in the aftermath of Gravity, whose $55.8 million opening weekend not only broke October records, but is a true “game-changer”—that is, if other directors and studio heads truly comprehend what’s occurred. Warner Bros., now the prestige studio of commercial filmmaking, and Alfonso Cuarón have implicitly refuted cynical cultural claims of vanquished ingenuity by refusing to so easily give in to previously established (and tired) modes of filmmaking, marketing, and distribution. Gravity, with its sincere and reverent interest in the power of film form and spectacle, reminds us that cinema can still surprise and awe—specifically, that contemporary mainstream cinema need not rehash older forms or be skeptical about audience cravings for new experiences in order to be successful. Rodriguez is at no more fault than a host of other filmmakers, but his Machete Kills has the unfortunate duty of following such a tour-de-force cultural juggernaut that its scapegoat status needs to be acknowledged.
For example, Machete Kills looks to differ very little from supposedly “quality” films like Iron Man 3 or, really, most any of the superhero properties, where a strict recipe for “success” exists, reliant on factory-lining previously established directors (Martin Campbell, Shane Black, Brett Ratner, etc.) for a supposedly “fresh” take and a “more is better” approach dependent on increased budgets and flashier special effects. Yet critics continue to laud these numbing films that, though generally box office-friendly, lobotomize and commercialize cinema to intractable degrees. Where Gravity differs is in its comprehensive refusal of such redundant tendencies, what makes it a miracle is that it succeeds (commercially and artistically) because of those omissions. Thus, in cultural terms, Gravity is a steel-toed boot and Machete Kills is a fleeing ant. Runner Runner was the first victim. This weekend the box office will, for a second consecutive week, reflect that relationship.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Gravity: $37.9 -33%
2. Captain Phillips: $19.1 NEW
3. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: $14.8 -29%
4. Machete Kills: $6.7 NEW
5. Prisoners: $3.2 -44%
6. Runner Runner: $2.6 -66%
7. Insidious: Chapter 2: $2.5 -37%
8. Rush: $2.2 -50%
9. Don Jon: $2.1 -48%
10. Baggage Claim: $2 -49%