October 9, 2017

Sci-Fi Masterpiece? Cult Classic? B.O. Bomb? 'Blade Runner' Will Always Be an Enigma

If history is our guide, 'Blade Runner 2049' was never going to open big. But it will likely have us talking for years to come.

On Friday, June 25, 1982, two films shared the title for the widest release of the weekend with 1,295 screens: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (down from its initial screen count of 1,621 on June 4, 1982) and a new release, the strangely titled Blade Runner.

Neither of those films, however, would capture the top spot at the box office that weekend. That honor went to E.T., which in its third week in release recorded its best weekly box office of its one-year theatrical run, bringing in $24.9 million between June 25 and July 1 on its way to an historic $353.3 million in its initial theatrical release. During that same week, Blade Runner captured the No. 2 spot on the box office chart, bringing in $9.55 million for the week after a weekend opening of $6.15 million.

As E.T. continued to hold on to the top spot at the box office for another nine weeks (twelve weeks consecutively from its opening, seventeen weeks at the No. 1 spot overall), Blade Runner faded fast, dropping out of the top ten within three weeks of its release, finishing its domestic release with a total of $27.58 million (or $83.4 million in 2017 dollars when adjusted for inflation, for some perspective).

'Blade Runner'Credit: Warner Bros.

Despite the tepid response at the box office, some critics were already keen to recognize the future of Blade Runner. In 1982, Robert Osbourne, critic for The Hollywood Reporter, presciently summarized the next thirty-five years of the film's fandom in his review of the sci-fi noir: "Admittedly, it's a film that will turn off many, but it will also bulge eyeballs and cause talk." Osbourne continued, "It all adds up to a virtual feast for sci-fi devotees, not to mention audiences who appreciate decidedly off-beat themes and substance worth debate. For them all, Blade Runner will require more than one visit to get all the implications."

Not all critics agreed at the time, though. Janet Maslin of The New York Times called Blade Runner "muddled yet mesmerizing," and went on to say, "it's also a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned. Almost nothing is explained coherently, and the plot has great lapses, from the changeable nature of one key character to the frequent disappearances of another." Sheila Benson of the LA Times rechristened the film Blade Crawler due to what she considered its slow pace.

Of course, even director Ridley Scott wasn't happy with the film that was released in theatres in June 1982. When test audiences in Denver and Dallas previewed Scott's original cut, they were thoroughly confused: this was not the Harrison Ford movie they expected after watching this heroic scoundrel in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Based on the negative reaction from the preview's cards, the now reviled voiceover was added, Scott's beloved unicorn scene was cut, and a new upbeat ending was tacked on, ironically using helicopter outtakes from the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as the backdrop for Deckard and Rachal's happily-ever-after moment.

blade runner film noir science fiction harrison ford blade runner 2049 video essay no film school justin morrow
Harrison Ford in 'Blade Runner'Credit: Warner Bros.

Blade Runner eventually found its audience on home video as dedicated sci-fi fans dissected the film through repeated viewings, roping in friends to make new converts over time. But even the size of Blade Runner's cult following 35 years later may be the circumstance of dumb luck. Michael Arick, a film restorationist for Warner Bros., just happened to discover a 70mm print of Blade Runner in 1989 when he was doing research on Gypsy. When that print was screened for an audience a few months later, Arick along with the audience discovered they were not watching the Blade Runner they had viewed so many times on VHS and LaserDisc. Instead, this print had very little voiceover and no happy ending, but also no unicorn scene and temp music for a climactic fight scene from Planet of the Apes instead of Vangelis' score. Ultimately, this discovery, along with wildly successful repertory screenings of this print and the original theatrical version led to the release of the Director's Cut in 1992. Continued home video success meant fans would get yet another version of Blade Runner, The Final Cut, in 2007 for the film’s 25th anniversary, which Scott called his definitive version of the film.

"Blade Runner will require more than one visit to get all the implications."

The impact of Blade Runner has only grown over time. The film's aesthetic has influenced many artists across all forms of media. But maybe the pull of Blade Runner has always been strongest with Scott himself. With producers and studios looking backwards to resurrect intellectual property to mitigate their perceived risk, when Scott proposed going back into the dystopian world of Blade Runner for a new film, the temptation must have been too great, despite the original's challenges at the box office.

For fans of the original, Blade Runner 2049 is a gift. With a carefully crafted script, sumptuous visuals, meticulous set design, seamless visual effects, and a brooding synth score, Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators—screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner, overall VFX supervisor John Nelson, and composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch—have stayed true to the original's themes and aesthetic while expanding the world and its mysteries. The sequel's filmmakers have managed to create a film that seemingly bolsters both sides of the argument about Deckard's existence as a human or a replicant without actually answering either one.

Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in 'Blade Runner 2049'Credit: Alcon Entertainment

And the fans turned out for Blade Runner 2049, snatching up advance tickets to Thursday night preview screenings, leading to predictions of a $50 million-plus opening weekend.

But apparently, only the fans turned out. After the initial Thursday and Friday screenings, ticket sales dropped off dramatically, landing around $32.75 million—wildly off from industry estimates made only days ago.

The secrecy over any plot details that was deemed so crucial to generate excitement among the cult following created an unforeseen enigma: the rest of the general public could not figure out what Blade Runner 2049 would be about. What's worse, non-fans weren't willing to invest three hours of their lives to explore a world that would probably make no sense to them without first diving into the original film (but which version of the original film?), and if they hadn't wandered into Scott's vision of 2019 over the past 35 years, they weren't going to venture into Villeneuve's concept of 2049 now.

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Ryan Gosling in 'Blade Runner 2049'Credit: Alcon Entertainment

While industry pundits and studio executives dissect the marketing plan of the film to learn what went wrong, fans will dissect Blade Runner 2049 to figure out the mysteries from the original and the sequel, returning to see the film in the theatre, then again on 4K UHD, and again on the next iteration of digital media, and the next. As the film slides down the box office list, debates about Deckard and that final scene will grow in the online forums. When award nominations are announced early next year, the film will rack up several technical noms, and maybe even noms for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Meanwhile, the fans will be digging deeper for clues to bolster their arguments, reinterpreting dialogue and character reactions, wondering what happened to all of those loose ends.

And years from now, regardless of whether Blade Runner 2049 breaks even thanks to international markets, or rebounds thanks to the fans' insatiable need for the most pristine, deluxe digital version, or becomes a cautionary tale about reviving a cult classic as a $150 million tentpole October release shrouded in secrecy, we will still be arguing about what it all means.

Your Comment

22 Comments

Because the film refused to be Gyno Runner like Gyno Max, not sure. American culture is shallow and prefers to be unchallenged intellectually? Most millennials haven't seen the first one? Kevin Harts new POS came out too? Afraid they'd get shot? Not a good Tender date film to name a few...

October 10, 2017 at 2:21AM

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Rita
producer
79

I took my 2 teenage sons, one had seen the original, both thought the film was brilliant. Yes it was long, but we all would see it again in a heartbeat. I would add Harrison Ford to the oscar nominee list. Sequel film-making at its best.

October 10, 2017 at 4:27AM, Edited October 10, 4:27AM

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Peter
16

I thought that the story and visuals were wonderful, but the experience was spoiled by poor audio in IMAX. Perhaps it was just my local theater, but the sound was oppressively loud and not imaged - at times like a poor mono mix. Anyone else have IMAX sound problems?

October 10, 2017 at 7:09AM

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Andy Kochnedorfer
Sr. Director, Global Production Management
120

I noticed there were some deliberately loud audio stings that for me in a regular theatre really increased the tension of some scenes, but in IMAX might have been simply unbearably loud.

October 10, 2017 at 7:39AM

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Noah Leon
Videographer editor
243

In my regular theater, I was more getting distracted by some structural scaffolding behind the screen that kept squeakily resonating when those loud sections would come around in the mid-upper frequencies. It seems like most theaters these days don't care about maintaining a clean sound environment when it comes to building maintenance. I wish I had a Dolby theater anywhere remotely close to me.

October 10, 2017 at 9:43AM

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Dan Hoene
201

I've been consistently frustrated with the ridiculously, unnecessary volumes of IMAX features - whether in a mainstream feature film or in museums. Sometimes even the dialogue is too loud. In this film, the dialogue was bearable, sound effects were way too loud, and the music was deafening.

A while back, I swore to never bother seeing an IMAX version of a feature film again, but I wanted to see these visuals on a large screen - I unfortunately forgot to bring ear plugs.

October 11, 2017 at 7:01PM

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Tony Virili
Digital Mercenary
183

I agree that it was pretty loud (in IMAX), at times bordering on uncomfortable. But a friend said that was fairly typical for IMAX experiences.

October 11, 2017 at 11:49PM

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Bruce Hyer
DP/Writer
57

This was a really worthwhile way to spend a few hours. I had the feeling after the movie finished that I had seen something special and would like to see it again immediately. I don't get that feeling often.

October 10, 2017 at 7:40AM

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Noah Leon
Videographer editor
243

I had to drive home with the radio off so I could recap the whole plot in my head. I think I'll need to see it again as well.

October 10, 2017 at 9:44AM, Edited October 10, 9:44AM

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Dan Hoene
201

I’ll give a critical view: Blade Runner original is an amazing visual experience with an espectacular fictional world construction unique in film history. Lighting probably the best in filmmaking. However, the story is poor and dialogues very dumb. But the film places you in a futuristic world like no one before, but 2001. The new Blade Runner 2049; I walked out the teather after 50 minutes of boredom.Great deception.Frankly, I expected something better.

October 10, 2017 at 9:42AM, Edited October 10, 9:42AM

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Javier Diez
Director/Writer
15

Hey Javier,
Just wanted to ask you what you found so deceiving about this film and maybe what could have been done to make it better.

October 10, 2017 at 4:21PM

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Mack Calistan
Cinematographer
235

Easy; a Producer with Scissors! Too many scenes in the first hour that add nothing to the story. And they feel disconnected. Big mistake because it took my interest away. Perhaps later is better¿? Besides, the original is too good so you soon feel is not up to that. The original has a live swirling futuristic amazing world full of people with lights moving all the time, atmosphere, smoke, vehicles, costumes, biciles, music, sound, etc. You can’t take your eyes a second out of the screen. Even apparently unimportant scenes are awesome! I recall the scene Deckard picks up a serpent scale from a bathtub.The lighthing is fuking amazing!! The elevator of Deckard apartment, the door, his kitchen, etc, etc. Such a huge level of detail! This one I would say is empty. And I’m sorry about it.

October 10, 2017 at 5:37PM

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Javier Diez
Director/Writer
15

I agree with you about scenes that don't progress the story but only in a few instances. I think over all I would disagree in the sense that the film was boring. Leaving 50 minutes in misses a lot of the movie that really lets you sink your teeth into like the original.

I think the style of lighting you are looking for is one that is much more in your face like the first one. Denis did a great job to rebuild the world in the film with a more gritty and dystopian vibe. Therefore it wouldn't service the story at all to have glamorous or beautiful cinematography.

October 10, 2017 at 7:27PM

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Mack Calistan
Cinematographer
235

The old Blade Runner looked beautiful:
https://cinestills.eu/blade-runner-1982/
2049 definitely had some stunning visuals aswell <3

October 10, 2017 at 5:10PM

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It should be clear at this point that the original Blade Runner is not popular as much as it was assumed to be. It was and is a boring movie for the general audience. Please do not start to analyze the film to me. You have a quantitative information in front of you. People want to be entertained. If you want to gain more than 200million dolars, the formula is very clear. It must be fast paced and an entertaining movie.

October 10, 2017 at 6:02PM

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bsar
4

10 billion flies love sh*t, so sh*t must taste fantastic!

October 11, 2017 at 10:31AM, Edited October 11, 10:31AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32021

Loved the film. Too bad it did not do so good at the box office. I am sure there are many factors that hurt the film from doing so good. One factor I like to point out, I bet this movie would have done better if piracy was not so easy. I believe most Sci Fi fans know how to watch this movie for free. In general, piracy hurts all movies. I can see in the future the genre getting hurt because of this.

October 11, 2017 at 4:33AM

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They marketed it as an Action film in the trailer. Raised the expectation of questions being answered, then took the audience on a waiting game. Yes, we get that it took brains to imagine that dystopia, but why insult the audience with so little emotional satisfaction? After 1 hour, you get what Blade Runner does best: show the future world. What next?
Blade Runner 2049... you know, whether we were made by aliens, or creatures who play with our lives and memories, they have put more effort into designing us than Sir R. Scott in his obsessive metaphor.

October 11, 2017 at 3:10PM, Edited October 11, 3:10PM

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I was blown away by Blade Runner 2049. Stunning design, visuals, a gripping story, great scenes that really stay with you, and an adherence to cinematic language. It's a beautiful movie that deserves to be revisited again (and again).

October 11, 2017 at 5:37PM, Edited October 11, 5:37PM

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The headline of the story is, Sci-Fi Masterpiece? Cult Classic? B.O. Bomb? All of the above. Or none of the above. This is going to be discussed for a long time. But regardless, it is hard to argue with the brilliance of the movie. Absolutely brilliant: visuals, story, imagination, execution, you name it. I just want a look at the storyboards. Some of the critics in these comments, like Javier, thought it was boring and the first 30 minutes were dull. Sorry, I'll bet you walked out on Deckard's interview of Rachel in the original because it was dumb.

October 12, 2017 at 12:01AM

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Bruce Hyer
DP/Writer
57

Walking out of the movie nullifies anything he has to say about the movie.

October 12, 2017 at 4:57PM, Edited October 12, 4:58PM

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I felt almost intellectually guilty in a sense after I saw 2049. Visually a masterpiece, the VFX and futuristic concepts were also amazing.

But tbh, I found the story so bloody boring.

I'd consider myself a pretty big sci-fi fan, but I found myself willing the director to just get on with it at times. Its a film that could have easily cut a lot of the fat. A lot of the ideas and questions being posed have already been done to death in various films, books and video games. Bioshock, for example, asks more interesting questions than this film (in my opinion). "A man choses, a slave obeys."

And the film's score just wasn't there. Hans Zimmer seems to be a bit hit and miss these days. I'm getting a bit tired of the blaring Inception horns.

But then I check out Meta critic and see people acting as though this film is the second coming of Christ.

And they really made a mistake advertising Harrison Ford as much as they did. Tbh, his role was more of an extended cameo at the end of the day.

In summary, it's the best looking boring as hell film that I've seen in a long time. A fantastic visual feast, that thinks it's smarter than it is.

That's just my opinion of course. In all fairness I guess I may just lack the taste required to appreciate a film like this.

October 14, 2017 at 5:36PM

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