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‘Blade Runner 2049’ Astounds, But Stumbles, at The Box Office

Blade Runner 2049 opened in the coveted #1 spot at the box office with a reported $32.8 million weekend tally—that’s more than the original Blade Runner earned in its initial theatrical run (in 1982 dollars, mind you) but it falls so short of the pre-release estimates of $50-65 million that the movie is being deemed a dud. Being the sequel to a film that divided critics and audiences and disappointed at the box office, this seems somehow fitting—though it doesn’t sting any less that a movie I love is in danger of getting buried at the multiplex.

Yes, I said it: I love Blade Runner 2049 and have already seen it twice. It is a terrific companion piece to the original 1982 film, well worth all the hype and delivering on its giant promise, honoring the first film’s legacy and lore while expanding upon it. It’s not perfect—as in the original movie, there are some glaring plot holes and familiar issues with characterization, pacing, and tone, and film-to-film comparisons of technical aspects such as cinematography, music, sound, visual effects, costumes, editing, and set design vary this time around. But this is for another Spasm when I deign to discuss the film in more detail (after another viewing, naturally).

The first Blade Runner didn’t merely disappoint at the box office—it outright bombed—but its subsequent ascension from the cinematic scrap heap to the upper echelon of “hard” sci-fi cinema has become the stuff of legend.

The film’s influence endures even to this day, inspiring artists, musicians, and movie-makers alike, not to mention fashionistas, architects, marketers, and techies.

Blade Runner’s revered cult status owes itself to the increased prevalence of videocassettes and cable TV in the 1980s, followed by analog laserdisc and then digital compact discs in the 1990s.

Without home video, there would likely never have been a 1992 “Director’s Cut,” nor would there have been a further “Final Cut” in 2007. It took Blade Runner years to gain the appreciation of movie-goers and film scholars, so I doubt the makers of Blade Runner 2049 were truly expecting a blockbuster opening.

For such a risky venture as Blade Runner 2049, for a movie that demands a patient audience willing to be challenged by big ideas rather than being spoon-fed artificial spectacle, and at a nearly 3-hour running time to boot, its $32+ million opening weekend gross is actually pretty good. This is especially true considering the Transformers crowd—let’s call them the “X-Box Generation,” shall we?—was conspicuously absent from marketing and attendance demographics.

Feverish cult appeal and enduring cinematic influence aside, the original Blade Runner has never been considered a money machine. It has performed well enough on home video and through multiple director-adjusted reissues that the producers of Blade Runner 2049 willingly took a calculated risk on a sequel to a 35-year-old film whose fans are loyal and legion but, unlike a sure-thing property such as Marvel/DC, or Star Wars, or Cars, or Transformers, or any other modern-day big-budget film of epic scope and ambition, good or bad, the appeal of Blade Runner as a monument of modern cinema has never been diluted by merchandising tie-ins or television spin-offs. The producers could very easily have carbon-copied the first script and updated the visual effects; they could have fallen into temptation and dumbed it down for the X-Box Generation; instead, they should be applauded for daring to make such an ambitious and contemplative film that not only exists on its own merits, but enhances our appreciation of and affection for its returning characters.

Like this year’s hit Logan, Blade Runner 2049 proves a genre picture can indeed be paced more deliberately, be about challenging ideas, and also deal with complex characters not readily slapped onto a Happy Meal.

It always sticks in my craw when a fine film fizzles or doesn’t catch on right away because too few movie-makers nowadays take the sort of chances as the creators of Blade Runner 2049, and so I feel a personal tinge of regret that the film is being qualified as a bomb so rapidly. Movies like Blade Runner 2049 do not follow the same rules as your typical tentpole wannabe blockbuster, and the sequel is light years beyond the spate of cynical cash-grab remakes and reboots of similar pedigree and fan appeal (just try not to shudder when you recall the risible latter-day versions of Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, The Mummy, The Thing, Total Recall, RoboCop, and so forth).

Audiences ought to be embracing and celebrating a cerebral adult-oriented film like Blade Runner 2049—too few of them come around anymore—and so its tepid first-weekend performance is a head scratcher. If there is any justice in the cinema universe, Blade Runner 2049 will eventually find a wider and more appreciative audience, and perhaps even justify a third film (the final scene is surprisingly poignant, so much so that I didn’t immediately clock it for sequel bait).

The new model for Hollywood is that a movie must open strongly and maintain a good hold through its second weekend, otherwise it’s adios by week three to make room for the next batch of new releases. There’s simply too much junk in the distribution pipeline, and it’s sad when a worthy film like Blade Runner 2049 gets drowned out in the mix. Scarce are the days when a movie could linger in theaters for weeks on end, gradually finding its audience as word of mouth spread. It happened recently with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver—my first viewing was on opening day and I saw the film with a sparsely populated but very enthusiastic audience; my second viewing occurred nearly eight weeks later, in the same exact auditorium, and the theater was filled to capacity. I can’t recall the last time I revisited a movie in theaters so far along into its initial run and saw such a turnout. I doubt a challenging film like Blade Runner 2049 can pull that kind of slow-burn momentum with ADHD audiences nowadays, but if by some miracle the second weekend decline for the movie is not too steep, the industry will be singing a different tune this time next week and be calling the film a sleeper hit.

Since the current theatrical distribution model does not allow for a movie like Blade Runner 2049 to stretch out its engagement and gradually allow audiences a chance to discover it, a lot depends on a strong hold during the film’s second weekend of release. That’s this weekend.

Do the movie-loving world a favor and go see Blade Runner 2049 this weekend before it disappears from big screens forever and is relegated to an afterlife of small-screen viewing on a flat-screen TV or on a ridiculously tiny tablet.

Consider it your fiduciary duty as a movie lover to support an ambitious epic like Blade Runner 2049 while it’s still playing in theaters. If Blade Runner 2049 manages to eke out a profit, maybe more serious and mature-minded movies like it will continue to be made—perhaps even additional Blade Runner sequels—and superficial junk-food flicks like Transformers and Saw and Resident Evil and The Fast and the Furious will happen less frequently.

We can only hope.

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