Blade Runner 2049 was a success in nearly every way; fans of the original were finally rewarded for their patience and loyalty, those unfamiliar with the original were treated to a gorgeous, intriguing, and immersive new world populated by dynamic, morally ambiguous characters, and cinephiles were astounded by Villeneuve's ambitious directorial skill, which was further enhanced by Deakins's nuanced cinematography and Zimmer and Wallfisch's ambient score. The movie paid homage to the original, with plenty of subtle easter eggs, Harrison Ford's return to the role of Deckard, and even several of the musical motifs from Vangelis's original score. The film's visual effects were state-of-the-art, further helping to craft a believable and mysterious, albeit bleak, world.
Despite achieving the hallmarks of a successful film, it suffered the same fate in the box office as did the 1982 original. That is to say, it flopped. However, looking at it from a different perspective, it's a wonder the movie was made at all. It's a big budget, R-rated, niche sci-fi sequel to a 35-year old film, and, on top of that, it has a runtime close to three hours. It isn't the kind of movie that appeals to a broad audience, yet it required the budget of a summer blockbuster. The result was hardly surprising.
Leaving the film's poor performance at the box office behind for a moment, we need to look at what makes Blade Runner 2049 special. I'll admit that when I first heard there was going to be a sequel, I wasn't excited. At all. I thought, Great. Another pointless reboot to a dead franchise. I'll pass. And I did. Though I deeply regret it now, I never saw 2049 in the theater. However, when I finally did watch it (on a friend's 4k TV with expensive, bass-boosted speakers), I was left breathless and confused. But mostly confused. There I was, sitting on my friend's couch completely dazed and close to tears. I didn't know how or why, but the movie touched me deeply. I looked over at my friends to see if they had the same reaction, but they had both snoozed. For weeks after that night, I could not get 2049 out of my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was always in the back of my brain, lurking, urging me back into its grasp. I had to watch it again. So I did, several times. Every time I watched it, I took more away from it; I noticed things I never saw before and felt things I never felt before. Every frame of the movie has meaning, every line of dialogue has weight, every event, character, and sound effect has a purpose. And after every viewing, I found that I liked the movie even more.
2049 is one of those rare pieces of science fiction that remains fundamentally grounded in humanity. It's not about robot slaves, A.I., or colonizing other worlds. Rather, these are simply a few of the media through which 2049 asks a seemingly simple question: what does it mean to be human? To have a soul? Not only does it ask the question, but it also elegantly expands on it using the apocalyptic, cyberpunk atmosphere of its world in a unique and remarkably fresh way. Added to that is the quiet, subtle mood of most of the film despite its chaotic premise and the long, steady shots of Deakins's cinematography. The effect is special. Engaging. Raw. Divisive. For the involved, invested viewer, all these factors create an elegant film that makes the most of every minute of its extensive runtime. For the uninvolved, uninvested viewer it's just plain boring, and perhaps even pretentious. That is to be expected, however, from a piece of art that sets out to say something. Not everyone is going to like what is being said or even be interested in hearing it. But at least the art exists for those who are interested in it, which leads me to my final point.
Blade Runner 2049's box office failure does not bode well for the future of cinema. In an era where superhero epics and empty action flicks are doled out yearly and yield immense wealth for their producers and distributors, 2049's box office performance shows that there isn't enough demand for risky, mature, and subtle films, at least not ones that require a big budget, to make them appealing to film companies. If companies don't think they can turn a profit or, in the case of 2049, manage to break even off of these kinds of films, there won't be very many of these films. However, there is some hope. Villeneuve himself has found success in the past with mind-bending sci-fi. His 2016 film, Arrival, was a box office success as well as a hit among critics and fans alike. Additionally, director Christopher Nolan has proven over and over again that he can sell these big, ambitious films and turn a huge profit. He did this first with The Dark Knight, then with Inception, again with Interstellar, and most recently with Dunkirk. So, maybe the future of cinema isn't all bleak. We'll just have to wait and see.