Blade Runner 2049 box office failure

Illustration by Raya Deussen

By Noah Foster-Koth

“Blade Runner 2049” is one of the most critically praised science fiction films in recent years. It’s also a financial disaster for Warner Brothers, which could lose millions if the film continues to flounder at the box office.

As of Oct.15, ticket sales for “Blade Runner 2049” have only amounted to $60 million, less than half of the $155 million that the studio spent making the film. You can’t blame the studio for investing so much in the movie when you consider all the things it has going for it. “Blade Runner 2049” has an all-star cast, an established brand name and rave reviews on its side. So why aren’t people lining up to see it?

For one thing, while the original Blade Runner has an established fan base, it never achieved the widespread popularity of rival sci-fi franchises like “Star Wars.” As a result, the sequel needs to appeal to people who haven’t seen the first film in order to make a profit. Unfortunately, the plot of “Blade Runner 2049” requires some familiarity with the 1982 original, which severely limits the number of people who can appreciate this year’s sequel. This isn’t to say that the sequel has a poorly written or overly derivative plot. “Blade Runner 2049” tells its own story, expanding on the original film rather than copying it. However, the big reveals and secrets in the new film won’t mean anything to audiences who haven’t seen the first movie. That’s not an objectively bad thing from a screenwriting perspective, since this film is meant to be a companion piece to the 1982 classic. But it does mean that moviegoers will struggle to understand the plot, and appreciate how clever it is, if they aren’t already fans of the original “Blade Runner.”

One of the main reasons movie buffs love the original film is that its gritty, dystopian vision of Earth’s future makes it stand out from the brighter, cleaner worlds of other ’80s sci-fi movies. To its credit, “Blade Runner 2049” does a great job of recreating the world that made the original Blade Runner so unique. The grimy, rain-soaked environment that characterized the 1982 film is lovingly replicated in the sequel, and fans of the original will relish the opportunity to return to that weird world another time. Today, however, the visual style that made “Blade Runner” unique no longer stands out compared to other films in the same genre. Movies like “Snowpiercer,” “Elysium” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” have been imitating the original film’s urban dystopia for years, making the sequel’s faithful recreation of it seem somewhat generic.

Another factor that likely contributed to the new movie’s box office failure is its tone. Both “Blade Runner” films offer a bleak, cynical representation of humanity and its future. The series has always forced audiences to consider the worst sides of human nature, from the way we marginalize low-ranking members of society to the way we’re actively destroying our home planet. “Blade Runner 2049” boldly embraces the inherent darkness and complexity of these subjects, which is part of what makes it a great science fiction film. However, the idea of being immersed in a more environmentally ravaged and socially divided version of Earth might not appeal to the average moviegoer right now. In a time when the real world is full of environmental catastrophe and social discrimination, audiences might be less interested in spending two and half hours in a future-fantasy where things have gotten even worse.

The financial woes of “Blade Runner 2049” arguably serve to continue the legacy of the 1982 “Blade Runner,” which was also a box-office bomb when it was first released. The original film only found an audience on the home video aftermarket when movie lovers could soak in the movie’s unusual atmosphere and heady philosophical themes over multiple viewings. Blade Runner 2049 may establish a similar cult following in a few years, but it won’t make a pile of cash along the way.

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