While others rushed into cinemas for the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had my eyes fixed on the classic eighties science-fiction sequel by one of my favorite directors, Denis Villeneuve. His filmography so far is nothing short of spectacular, consisting of unique movies that are not only visually stunning but also intellectually challenging. Prisoners, Enemy, and Arrival, three movies that you should definitely take the time to watch, are a few examples. But enough fanboying for now — let’s take a look at Blade Runner 2049.
The story takes place 30 years after the original in the same city, futuristic Los Angeles. LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner — a detective whose role is to “retire” Replicants — who one day uncovers a secret that could upset the society he lives in. His discovery takes him on a journey to find the truth about himself and everything he has ever believed.
While this description is vague, it is intentionally so. The less you know, the more you will appreciate — and there is a lot to appreciate here. First, the incredible cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins cannot be missed. There is not a single scene that won’t bring pleasure to your visual senses, and any frame could be used as the background for your desktop. If you still can view it on the big screen, please do yourself the favor.
A sequel has to be purposeful for it to be necessary. That is, it must contribute to the original while remaining relevant. However, this is definitely not an easy task and many sequels fail to do so. In fact, many of those that fail may not even intend to meet this criterion, with the primary purpose of grabbing cash through the success of the original. An example is Jurassic World, as it neither added to Spielberg’s work nor knew the appeal of the original. The sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, on the other hand, satisfies the requirements beyond expectations. A typical sequel might have picked up the story where it left off, which would have been meaningful enough, as the original concluded with a cliffhanger that left fans begging for an answer. However, Villeneuve and his crew expand the universe of the original by creating a new society 30 years into the future. By no means does this create a sequel disconnected from the original. Rather, the two are tightly intertwined to gratify fans who have waited three decades. Blade Runner 2049 is faithful to its precursor in both plot and theme.
With astonishing visuals and a tight story that honors its original, why did the film flop in the box office? The film made 24 million USD on its opening weekend and grossed a total of 31.5 million USD total. Compare this figure to its production budget of 150 million USD and Blade Runner 2049 is indisputably a financial disaster. Neither professional nor popular opinions can explain this phenomenon. A Rotten Tomatoes rating of 88 percent and an IMDb score of 8.5 indicate that critics and audiences enjoyed it alike.
The main reason behind the movie’s financial failure comes from what the movie succeeded to accomplish and not what it failed to do. While the eighties Blade Runner is a classic, thirty years have passed and young audiences are not too familiar with it. To be completely honest, I had not seen the original before hearing about 2049 either. Those like me face two options: watching the original or trying to understand it without prior context. I chose the former and even watched the three short clips Villeneuve released to explain the happenings of the omitted 30 years. However, this is a considerable amount of preparation for one movie.
Another cause is a misleading marketing campaign. Trailers advertised the movie as a science-fiction blockbuster but what viewers got was a slow-paced, philosophical journey questioning what it means to be human. While there are a few action scenes spread throughout the running time, it is mostly an introspective voyage that could throw off audiences who expected more high-tech spectacle. One last complaint could be the running time itself. Movies have been getting longer, but three hours is still almost an hour longer than the average movie and more than what some can endure.
Blade Runner 2049 is a masterful work that lives up to its predecessor. Despite its box-office flop, its ambitious goals and success in achieving them will not go unnoticed during awards season. Moreover, I believe it will be revered as a classic in future years. What we must do for more movies like Blade Runner 2049 is grant them the financial success they deserve, even if it takes a bit of homework.