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).
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 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.
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.
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.