Movie Postmortems: BLADE RUNNER 2049

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out what the hell happened.

(Movie Postmortems will run on an alternating schedule with Cinema Jackpot!)

 

THE CASUALTY: Blade Runner 2049

THE CASE HISTORY: June 1982. A highly-anticipated film titled Blade Runner opens in North America and earns about $6 million at the domestic box-office. Not a bad debut for this buzzed about blend of futuristic sci-fi and film noir starring newly-minted star Harrison Ford, hot off the Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film’s pedigree also includes director Ridley Scott, whose smash hit two years prior, Alien, redefined the sci-fi horror genre and its heroines. Blade Runner appears to be shaping up as another score for both Ford and Scott.

However, despite a decent 4.5 multiplier leading to a final domestic gross just under $28 million (about $86 million today), the film is labeled a disappointment because it barely earns back its budget and marketing costs. Moreover, divisive critical reviews polarize audiences. Blade Runner’s heady, cerebral blend of high-tech mystery and mysticism thrills some and confounds others. Alien had some of Blade Runner’s brooding, atmospheric style but was also much more direct and visceral. The latter seems to suffer by comparison and doesn’t achieve the former’s mainstream success.

At least, not right then. Something interesting happens as the years go by: Blade Runner slowly develops a very fervent following. Reports of production issues that resulted in different cuts of the film only further add to the intrigue.  These various cuts see the light of day in one format or another, allowing new tellings of Blade Runner’s tale. Many deem the “director’s cut” of the film to be superior to the theatrical release back in 1982, which was hampered by a ham-fisted expository voiceover (which Ford reportedly loathed and resisted as much as he could) and tacked-on happy ending. This and other things lead to a re-assesment of the film, which eventually results in the American Film Institute adding Blade Runner to its list of Most Important Films. The film is belatedly regarded as an unsung classic.

Talks of a sequel or remake of Blade Runner wax and wane throughout the years and decades, especially after a major Hollywood production company acquires the rights to the film and its potential franchise opportunities in 2011. Ridley Scott’s involvement also ebbs and flows. However, it isn’t until 2015 when Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners, Arrival) is hired to direct (with Scott executive producing) and Ryan Gosling is cast in the lead that plans for the sequel begin to gel.

Harrison Ford also climbs onboard although it is reported his character, replicant hunter Deckard, will only appear in the last third of the film. His fellow Blade Runner alumnus Edward James Olmos also joins, adding to a growing cast of veteran and new faces including Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks, Carla Juri, Ana De Armas, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, and Hiam Abbass. Production begins in July 2016. The title of the sequel is eventually announced as… Blade Runner 2049.

October 2017. Blade Runner 2049 opens in North America and takes in about $32 million in its first three days.  Given all the fanfare and steady drum beat of hype leading to the release – not to mention its production budget of  $155 million (much more with marketing costs) – this is considered a bit soft. While critical notices are considerably more favorable than when Blade Runner first came out in 1982 – with many citing the film as one of th best movies of 2017 – mainstream audiences don’t seem to be flocking to the sequel in droves.

Blade Runner 2049 ultimately grosses just over $90 million in North America (just over half its production/marketing budget). Even with an additional $160 million or so from overseas markets, the general consensus is that Blade Runner 2049 may be a critical hit, but it is a commercial misfire. Resembling, in many ways, its predecessor.

What the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Candidly speaking, many critics were right about Blade Runner 2049: it is one of the best films of 2017. Unfortunately, the very things that make it so distinctive and remarkable are also some of the things that current audiences may not cotton to. It has an unhurried pace that is downright dream-like. While there are some action setpieces, they are not as explosive or spectactular as you would think. The emphasis is on character development and more of the same noir-ish atmosphere that enveloped the original. The film gets extra points over the original, however, for having a predominantly female cast, with a story driven by its women almost more than its men – an inversion of the gender dynamics from the original.

The allure of Blade Runner 2049 lies in the singularly hypnotic universe it unfolds in – just like its predecessor. Like that film, this one also concerns itself with themes of connection, isolation, and humanity – things current mainstream audiences don’t necessarily look for in their sci-fi action-thrillers (if they ever did). Add to that a daunting length of almost three hours and Blade Runner 2049 starts to look more and more like a harder sell than meets the eye for the casual movie-goer. Loyal BR fans and sci-fi aficionados will sign up for anything, but that isn’t necessarily the case with someone with a passing-to-nil familiarity with the franchise.

The cult popularity of the original film may have influenced the makers to fashion the sequel as more of a blockbuster follow-up, confident of its mass appeal. Ultimately, they were wrong. The Blade Runner films appeal more to a core group rather than the masses. Had the producers scaled down the production of Blade Runner 2049 and halved the budget to about $80 million, its commercial performance would be much better regarded – and the film would likely be pronounced a modest hit. However, one could also argue that the reason the film is so arresting is because no expense was spared in realizing its unique world.  A bit of a Catch 22.

In the end, maybe Blade Runner 2049 was always meant to repeat the fate of Blade Runner. Lukewarm boxoffice notwithstanding, these two films are still undisputed classics. Money isn’t everything.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Blade Runner 2049, just like Blade Runner, are unconventional tales that were unfortunately marketed as conventional tales. They’re not for everyone – and their shared tepid commercial experience reflects that. However, they very much deserve their critical acclaim.

NEXT CASUALTY: Spectre – “It was ME, James! ME! The author of. All. YOUR. PAIN!”

Speaking of ‘money isn’t everything,’ our next Postmortem grossed $880 million around the world and was an undisputed hit. However, trying to find someone (who isn’t a film critic) who genuinely liked the latest James Bond film is like trying to find a cab in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve: good luck. Yup, the last installment in the Bond franchise made a mint in 2015 but also created a backlash, giving us an interesting paradox: a massive box-office hit that made almost a billion dollars worldwide – but still feels like a flop. Shaken, not stirred, indeed…

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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