Oof, this one is rough. Over the weekend, despite good buzz and glowing reviews from critics, Blade Runner 2049 opened by bringing in a meager $31.5 million domestically at the box office, a figure well below expectations and one that looks particularly bleak when you factor in that the film reportedly cost more than $150 million to make.
What happened? Were fans just unwilling to go back to Blade Runner‘s future 35 years after Ridley Scott’s original film? Did women not want to see a movie where they had such limited roles? Or did the performance of Denis Villeneuve’s Runner reboot just speak to the fact that not that many folks wanted to spend nearly three hours watching a moody—if stunning—sci-fi film when things are already so gloomy outside the multiplex? It’s hard to say, though industry analysts suggest lack of interest from people under 25 and a runtime that allows for fewer screenings per day are contributing factors.
As for us, we have some theories of our own. Below, Angela Watercutter and Brian Raftery, who wrote WIRED’s cover story on the movie, put their heads together to figure out what BR2049 did right, what it did wrong, and why it didn’t do much of anything at all at the box office.
Angela Watercutter: OK, I’ll start, mostly because I have a lot of questions and Brian’s a bigger Blade-head than I. Dude, what happened here? I think you liked this sequel more than I did, but I think we can both agree it’s a solid film that deserved to sell more tickets than it did. Did it just not connect with people? When we were talking about it in the WIRED Culture Slack, our colleague Peter Rubin pointed out that after editing Devon Maloney’a piece analyzing the representations of women in the movie he thought maybe the movie didn’t get the boost it could have from female fans, à la Mad Max: Fury Road. I think there could be something to that, and I was similarly off-put by its emphasis on the woes of white guys. I also think it was a fairly nice weekend and folks didn’t want to spend much of it in a theater. But those aren’t the kind of issues that have stopped movies from bringing in boffo box office before. What do you think is really going on?
Brian Raftery: As of last week, I was certain Blade Runner 2049 had a bright future ahead of it: Early reviews had been mostly ecstatic—so much so that Oscar forecasters had begun predicting an awards blitz for cinematographer Roger Deakins—and Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling had proved to be charming meet-the-press pals on the promotional circuit. More importantly, 2049 felt like a companion piece to such 2017 hits as Get Out, Baby Driver, and Split—all of them smart, adult-aimed R-rated films that had convinced long-lapsed movie-lovers to get out of the house for the night. This has been a year full of must-see movies, and the exquisite, visually magnetic 2049—with its detailed vistas and multiple existential dilemmas—seemed like the most must-see-ish of them all. I figured it would have the same sort of run as Mad Max or even Dunkirk, with a solid opening weekend, followed by weeks of sustained interest and months of cultural chatter.
But maybe I simply failed to understand the size of Blade Runner‘s cult following. The original movie hung around for just a few weeks back in 1982, and was then subjected to several decades’ worth of revivals and revisions. Even today, with all of its posthumous acclaim, it’s a hard movie to boil down to a single pitch—”Harrison Ford hunts some robots” seems too simplistic—and it’s the kind of moody head-scratcher that still spurs arguments among its fans. For all the possible reasons that 2049 failed to connect this weekend (long running time, R rating, a purposely kept-secret storyline), the one that makes the most sense to me is, perhaps appropriately, the most human: Blade Runner is kinda confusing (and definitely dark), and not a lot of people want to invest three hours of their time into something they feel they won’t understand. I can’t blame them for that, but I am pretty bummed, as I was looking forward to talking about this movie with others for a long time.
(Spoiler alert: Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 follow.)
Watercutter: Two things: One, does that mean Blade Runner 2049 has fallen into the same trap as mother!? Two, as with that misunderstood movie, I’m happy to talk about this flick with you! I mean, I think you’re right. BR2049 (are we calling it that yet?) might have just been a lot for folks. Too much time, too much confusion, too much everything. And that’s what sets it apart from something like Fury Road, which was also long and based on something that was decades old: I don’t think audiences believed it was going to be exciting, you know? Mad Max was able to pull people in with “massive fiery car chase across the desert with take-no-shit Charlize Theron.” And, to your point, 2049 is best summed up with “Ryan Gosling has an existential crisis—with robots.” Maybe not an easy sell.
So, since other people might not ask you, I will: What did you like about Blade Runner 2049? I thought it was overly long—cutting each of those drawn-out shots by like four seconds probably would’ve gotten the movie closer to two hours—but incredibly beautiful. And I liked a lot of the Easter eggs. Specifically, I loved that the tile in K’s (Gosling) kitchen was reminiscent of the exterior of the Ennis House in Los Angeles, the Frank Lloyd Wright building used for Rick Deckard’s home in the original Blade Runner. (Sadly, I didn’t see any visual references to the Bradbury Building.) There was one other sort-of reference I saw, but I might have to talk to you about that one offline, because it’s super spoilery.
Brian Raftery: Villeneuve certainly takes his time lingering in the world of Blade Runner 2049, but I didn’t mind the extended stay, as the movie takes place in the kind of glittery, pricey big-screen fantasia that few moviemakers (and even fewer studio execs) have the patience or resources to create anymore. Like the first film, 2049 just feels so different than anything I’ve seen before, and that alone justified the occasionally laggy third act. But there’s more to 2049 than just sensual visuals: I loved the characters’ complicated pact with technology—the way their machines both liberated and limited them—and found the movie’s scattered but intense moments of violence to be brutally effective. Also great? Ford’s weary performance; the spare, chilly score; and pretty much all of the clothes, from Gosling’s Hoth-cool jacket to Luv’s (Sylvia Hoeks) numerous Kubrick-on-the-runway get-ups.
Still, even if Blade Runner 2049 represents luxe filmmaking at its finest, maybe that’s not enough for moviegoers in 2017—or, then again, maybe it’s too much. The new Blade Runner is an immersive experience, the kind that requires you to put down your phone and get lost in a big, bewildering world for hours on end. That doesn’t seem like a huge sacrifice in the binge-era, when people are capable of shotgunning an entire season of a TV show in a weekend, and certainly, smashes like Titanic and Avatar were just as lengthy. But those movies promised the spectacle of romance, and vice versa. Blade Runner 2049 offers something a little stranger and chillier, and in a year already ruled by fear, maybe that’s too much to ask of audiences. That said, I hope more people catch up with 2049 before 2017 is over. We don’t get big-studio movies this smart and audacious too often, and we should enjoy them now, lest they be relegated to the off-worlds forever.