Why 'Blade Runner 2049' Failed At The Box Office, According To Director Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049 was a truly audacious blockbuster movie, tackling themes of humanity, free will, and fate — all wrapped in a haunting dystopian noir mystery that both aped and improved upon the iconic visuals of Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner.

But much like the original Blade Runner, the sequel underwhelmed at the box office, opening to a tepid $32 million domestically and going on to rake in $252 million worldwide, barely breaking even on its towering $155 million budget. Not a huge financial disappointment, to be sure, but the movie was written off as a failure — precisely because it was a highly anticipated, highly acclaimed follow-up to one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time.

Critics almost universally agreed: Blade Runner 2049 was a science-fiction masterpiece. So why didn't audiences feel the same way?

That's the question director Denis Villeneuve has been wrestling with. Blade Runner 2049 was supposed to be the French-Canadian director's break into mainstream success, following up his critically successful run of brutal and cerebral dramas like Sicario, Prisoners, and Arrival. But the rave reviews Blade Runner 2049 received didn't help him process the movie's box office disappointment, Villeneuve said in an interview with Yahoo:

"I'm still digesting it. It had the best [reviews] of my life. I never had a movie welcomed like that. At the same time, the box office in the United States was a disappointment, that's the truth, because those movies are expensive. It will still make tons of money but not enough. The thing I think is that, it was maybe because people were not familiar enough with the universe. And the fact the movie's long. I don't know, it's still a mystery to me."

Villeneuve may have hit the nail at least partially on the head. At two hours and 43 minutes long, Blade Runner 2049 was pushing three hours — not an uncommon trend for some studio tentpoles these days, but a huge favor to ask of audiences who weren't ready to sit through the slow-burning tonal poem that Blade Runner 2049 turned out to be. The sequel was heavily marketed as a high-stakes action film, with Hollywood A-listers Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford teaming up to defeat the corporate evil that Jared Leto represents. Instead, audiences were treated to a mood piece that explored the nature of humanity. To be fair, these were themes that the original Blade Runner explored, and that was also an underperforming film that only moved on to cult classic status after it left theaters.

Maybe audiences weren't familiar with the original — though Villeneuve's sequel doesn't require knowledge of the original to follow the story — but if they were, perhaps that could be a reason they stayed away. Hear me out: As much as I lambast Hollywood for churning out brain-dead popcorn fare, perhaps Blade Runner 2049's high-concept approach didn't quite appeal to the masses. And Warner Bros. knew that it wouldn't (I guess here is where you can blame Rotten Tomatoes). But Blade Runner 2049 shouldn't have to appeal to a wider audience. I don't think that Blade Runner 2049 should sacrifice its vision in order to boost its box office numbers, though perhaps Warner Bros. shouldn't have dropped quite so much cash on it.

It's still astonishing to me that Warner Bros. was willing to let Villeneuve explore such abstract concepts on a costly budget of $155 million, and it would be encouraging if not for the fact that Blade Runner 2049's box office disappointment will likely guarantee that we won't get a boundary-pushing blockbuster like this again any time soon.

Watch the full interview with Villeneuve below.