The new golden age of studio science-fiction is upon us
“Blade Runner 2049” is going to struggle to make it past the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, hardly the response Warner Bros. was looking for given the film’s estimated $300 million production and marketing budget. In a way, the odds were always against “2049” given that its predecessor was also a financial disappointment and only went on to become a cult classic with a very specific demographic of moviegoers. “Blade Runner” is no multi-generational favorite a la “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park.”
But while the sequel is a box office dud, it’s unquestionably a huge step in the right direction for studio filmmaking.
In a blockbuster age dominated by comic book fare and endless cash-grabbing sequels, it has become increasingly rare to see a big-budget studio film driven not by mind-numbing spectacle or the demands of universe-building but by an auteur’s singular vision. “2049” lacks the epic action set pieces that define Marvel movies, but it has a kind of patience and cerebral edge any superhero movie wouldn’t dare touch. The film has a gun fight or two, but it’s largely made up of characters reflecting on their own shifting perceptions of what it means to be human.
Making a blockbuster like “2049” in 2017 is a huge risk, but it’s the kind of risk studios need to keep taking. Director Denis Villeneuve was able to make a pure Villeneuve movie for $300 million, and that alone should be celebrated by cinephiles, regardless of the film’s financial outcome.
Villeneuve did the exact same thing just last year with “Arrival,” another cerebral slice of science-fiction that traded in action scenes for thought-provoking human drama. “Arrival” was made for a fraction of the cost of “2049,” but it was a similar creative risk. Villeneuve made an alien invasion movie and didn’t destroy a single skyscraper; instead, he pieced together the past and future memories of a grieving mother, which isn’t exactly your typical major studio release. “Arrival” ended up grossing over $100 million and earning eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but the film is the exception, not the rule. More times than not, allowing a director to see his or her vision through without studio censorship will have a polarizing result with fans and at the box office. Just look at what’s happening to “2049” or what happened to Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” earlier this year for proof.
Fortunately, the post-“2049” future for studio films looks somewhat bright, and it appears we have the science-fiction genre to thank for that. More so than any other genre right now, science-fiction has become the one area where major Hollywood studios seem comfortable taking a risk and giving an auteur the budget he needs to try something bold and different. We saw it with “Arrival” and “2049,” and we even saw it with Matt Reeves’ more elegiac and mournful “War For the Planet of the Apes” (which also struggled at the box office over the summer). Usually, audience would have to go indie if you wanted to see challenging sci-fi (“Ex Machina,” “Coherence,” “Primer,” and “Moon” being some examples), but it looks like that’s no longer the case.
Read more at IndieWire.