Why Blade Runner 2049 failed
A meditation on how, despite being an original and worthwhile sequel, Blade Runner 2049 turned out to be a box office failure
"And blood-black nothingness began to spin, a system of cells interlinked within, cells interlinked within cells interlinked, within one stem. And dreadfully distinct, against the dark, a tall white fountain played." These lines are part of the epic poem in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. But recently they were used as part of the post-traumatic baseline test in Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
It is an update on the Voight-Kampff test used in the earlier film by blade runners to determine if an individual is a replicant. Here, the baseline test is used to determine if the replicant can continue to function as a replicant, whether he or she is compromised, or if he or she will continue to work under the orders of humans. Is this just window dressing over reinventing features of the original film or is this more? It's arguably much more, the details of which is outside the scope of this article (and are possibly spoilers) but it is something that points to the redoubtable filmmaking abilities of Villeneuve. When we watch Blade Runner 2049, we watch Hampton Fancher and Michael Green's new screenplay, Villeneuve's piercing originality and nothing of Scott's earlier film. In other words, it is less of a pretender or a nostalgia vehicle and its authenticity as far as sequels go is unparalleled. Blade Runner 2049, at one point believed to be the most anticipated movie of the year, is also a colossal box office failure.
What are some of the sequels that have had great critical and commercial successes in recent times? The one that immediately comes to mind is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. New characters, a new director, new planets and a new weapon. Oh, new droids. It's fun. It's a lovely throwback that you can soak in, something you can consume. But to savour? You'd go back to the 70s, to A New Hope, the film Episode VII is an unabashed remake of. Presented to us in the garb of a sequel, the director JJ Abrams even defended the idea behind it as a lubricant to ease new and old fans alike into the Star Wars universe after a gap of many years. It is smart. The nostalgia worked wonders, even if it did not give us a film that we'd love to revisit or find anything more than surface level entertainment in. It made money. The same happened earlier that year with Jurassic World. Another remake-as-a-sequel, a little too polished, with lot less charm. New species alright. New, functioning, open to public theme park. Nephews and nieces visiting alone. The same geneticist and another unethical capitalist showman. It broke box office records.
And that works for them. What went wrong with Blade Runner 2049? Unlike the big-ticket sequels mentioned, Denis Villeneuve's film is pensive, meditative and as far removed from mainstream as possible. It is pale and humourless, and its concerns are the dehumanising aspects of its civilisation, not far away from a clear and present danger type of situation that our own generation might identify with. With the kind of themes it tackles, the film couldn't have been made in any other fashion. It's not a Marvel film with dollops of humour and fan service, neither is it a DC film that tries too hard without grace. It runs for 163 minutes, taking its sweet time to build plot, develop character, delve into its philosophy and hold in its suspense. Everything that is great about this sequel is also a compact recipe for box office disaster.
Blade Runner 2049, in its own words, or to be more accurate, in the words of Nabokov, is dreadfully distinct. Importantly, it is a film from an auteur like Villeneuve from whom you would get vision and not assembly line. There is a line that Deckard says to Joe at the end of the film: 'Sometimes to love someone you got to be a stranger'. Sometimes to make a great sequel of a cult film, you got to be more of a filmmaker and less of a fanboy.