James Witherspoon examines the reasons behind Blade Runner 2049’s poor showing at the US box office
Villeneuve’s sequel to sci-fi classic Blade Runner doesn’t look like it’s going to usurp its mammoth budget (reportedly $155mill), much to the surprise of the film press and moviegoers everywhere. But what exactly does it mean? Are audiences incapable of putting up cash for daring, intellectual films? Is originality dead in cinema? Or is the situation simply that Blade Runner 2049 was never an in-built hit?
The first erroneous calculation many seem to have made is that Blade Runner was prime financial property in the first place. The brand isn’t nearly as much of a nostalgia draw than, say, Star Wars – attracting a particular middle-aged catchment of technically-minded men, in combination with a broader science-fiction demographic. But it’s also important to note that a large percentage of Blade Runner fans are interested in the self-contained story and particular ambiguities of the former film; less excited over seeing a modern director take on the material with an all-star cast. As an example, Scott’s own Alien: Covenant faced a similar nosedive back in May, failing to make a dent over films that many thought to be far less likely to do well. Like Blade Runner, the Alien franchise is one that attracts a particular cult audience – and shouldn’t be expected to triumph at the box office.
On the subject of that cast, Ryan Gosling is definitely a draw for modern audiences – but not exactly a huge cash: for example, The Nice Guys didn’t benefit from his presence, similarly failing at the box office. 2049 nevertheless represents the biggest opening weekend Gosling has ever had, despite the bomb. Likewise, Harrison Ford is no longer a high-level presence – functioning for nostalgia cash value more so than a “current” star. The film is padded out with other lower level stars – Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, and Ana De Armas – who, although skilful players, don’t exactly have swaying power over the cinemagoing public.
The advertising budget for this one also wasn’t high. Sure, there were posters and exceptional trailers, but TV spots seem to have been negated in the UK, and an alarming amount of people commented to myself on the 6th that they “weren’t aware it was out yet”. This just goes to show that riding off the back of reputation, as The Force Awakens did, isn’t going to work with any reboot. It also shows that the “Blade Runner bubble” – those who love the original and kept up to date with the sequel – functions in the same way as the housing bubble: those inside it had no idea it would burst.
One could make an argument to be made that the way in which 2049 has been discussed in the media deters the average cinemagoing audience from putting up the cash to see it. Critics have focused on the slow, methodical approach the film takes to get where it wants to go – and, in turn, commentators have supposed that this could’ve dissuaded, say, Marvel fans and the like from turning up to showings. Although there’s perhaps a shred of truth in this, I think it’s missing the points given above. Sure, we can spend time claiming that audiences are boring and unintellectual, but this is a rather unnuanced view. More accurate is that “audiences do not look for films that are described as “slow, ponderous, and pretentious” in even 5-star reviews”. This, coupled with the mid-range cast, and a cult core audience, demonstrates that 2049 was never going to be an easy sell.
But lastly, above all, I would direct attention away from the box office figures, and towards a more holistic point of view. Ridley Scott’s original was an immediate box office flop, and a critically controversial piece of work. It has taken years of cult viewing and ‘best of’ lists to finally bring it into mainstream canon work – and yet, despite the slow burn, it’s now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. To my mind, 2049 is a superior piece of work: the visuals more intense, the themes better explored, and the sense of brooding menace more evocative. The quality of the piece should give it legs for the future – both in the hearts of science fiction fans, and those looking for great movies. This should ensure that Villeneuve’s vision continues to gain credibility over the next few years, resulting in a reputation that’s worth more than a box office smash. Even if it’s not making a dent right now, it’s reasonable to assume that many years down the line we’ll still be discussing it.
So yeah, 2049 hasn’t done as well as many had hoped – and perhaps a large percentage of the cinemagoing audience do prefer easy, action-packed blockbusters – but it’s hardly the end of the world. The main takeaway to have is that Villeneuve’s bonkers, hallucinogenic saga was made on a huge budget, and crafted for the enjoyment of a rather niche audience. As a result, it’s made a lot of money – but not enough to recoup its losses. We must ask ourselves what’s more important, cash or reputation? If it’s the latter, which I believe it is, Blade Runner 2049 is surely the highest grossing film of the year.