As I wrote into Facebook the other day:
I saw Blade Runner 2049 today, with my wife and an audience of about 20. Well, that’s serious science fiction for ya.
Which is about as simple a set of two sentences I can weave about something that’s been going on since, well, when science fiction first came to movies, and later, television: the fact that audiences largely don’t enjoy serious science fiction in anything other than literature.
This was, of course, kicked off by Blade Runner 2049, which opened in theaters, did not earn back a quarter of the money spent on it this opening weekend, and—according to articles and media comments—that actually surprised some people. This, despite having been a sequel (which, with reboots, are very popular these days), a sequel of a movie which has achieved cult status over the years, being a very well-constructed and exciting story, having brought some box office leading actors along (including a few from the original movie), and sparing no expense on the inevitable bells and whistles.
Based on those points, it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t do as expected in the box office (hey, it made $32 million; that’s nothing to sneeze at). But those points above are all, unfortunately, superseded by the single point right here: Blade Runner 2049 is serious science fiction. And serious science fiction is simply not something that general (American) movie audiences want to see… nor have they ever wanted to see serious science fiction on their movie screens.
By “serious,” what I mean is that it’s the kind of science fiction that seriously examines its story, and has an intelligent approach to storytelling. Its audience is intended to pay attention to the story and trappings, stir their brainpans a bit, and think about what they are experiencing. In so doing, they are expected to take something away from this story that will inform them a bit about themselves and/or the world they live in, maybe alter their lifeview/worldview a bit, and maybe… hopefully… send them in a direction that, with the help of others who have been similarly influenced, makes this world a better place.
And American movie audiences don’t want that. At all.
American movie audiences see most movies as one of two things. Think of it like food: When you’re hungry, you can go out to a place that serves steaks, or you can go out to a place that serves burgers. The steaks are the serious movies like dramas, introspectives and whatever Woody Allen does. The burgers are action movies, rom-coms and horror. The former is designed for you to go home, pour a glass of wine and discuss with your significant other and your friends: “I found the dichotomy between the sisters’ professions and their domestic lives to be distracting, though possibly it was unduly over-emphasized by the incident at the mall.” The latter is designed for you to go to to a bar, grab a few beers and say: “WHOOOOO!”
Now, science fiction can fall into either of these categories. Movies like Blade Runner 2049 fall into the serious side, along with fairly recent movies like Arrival, Solaris, Ex Machina and Cloud Atlas. The problem is that American audiences don’t see science fiction as “really” serious, due mostly to its preponderance of future times, space settings, evidence of aliens and robots, time travel and bizarre weaponry. To those audiences, a “real” drama, say, Schindler’s List, compares to a science fiction drama like Blade Runner the way a nicely marbled sirloin, asparagus and a baked potato compares to a KFC Real Meal. Result: Audiences stay home, as they did for Arrival, Solaris, Ex Machina and Cloud Atlas.
And what about the movie audiences who like science fiction? Over the years, it’s been demonstrated at the box office that those audiences may watch serious science fiction on occasion… but they would much prefer more lighthearted sci-fi, tending toward action-adventure, and featuring the aforementioned future times, space settings, evidence of aliens and robots, time travel and bizarre weaponry. Unlike the serious drama fan, who dumps all science fiction into the same tepid pot, science fiction fans can distinguish between serious science fiction and less serious sci-fi… and they overwhelmingly choose the sci-fi over the serious stuff. They demonstrate that they don’t want to think about the movies they watch; they want to watch and go “WHOOOOO!” Result: Audiences bypass Blade Runner and go to War for the Planet of the Apes.
For the record, this rule applies to science fiction on television as well. In recent years, we’ve had some highly intelligent SF series like Person of Interest, Orphan Black and Humans. But the fans tend to obsess over shows like Star Trek, Galactica, Stargate and Farscape, of which, while all being fine shows, the latter shows are designed to be more exciting and less intellectually challenging than the former shows. (Star Trek fans in particular may bristle at this; but even they can’t deny that the original series’ fondness for thought-provoking stories has largely been replaced in recent years with galactic wars and technobabble-filled melodramas.)
Which leaves movies like Blade Runner 2049, along with Arrival, Solaris, Ex Machina and Cloud Atlas, all well-written and well-produced science fiction movies, left standing at the altar with all their handsomeness, excellent references and finely-tailored suit while the bride runs off with a rugby player with a name like Caesar or Skywalker.
So what will be the fate of Blade Runner 2049? Well, the ape-lovers may have bypassed it, but it is nonetheless an excellent motion picture and science fiction story, with fantastic performances and deep underlying themes of individuality, identity, humanity and slavery. The funny thing is, there’s actually plenty of action, shoot-em-ups, explosions, sexy characters, blood and death in there. (And a lot more tits than I expected.)
And despite its lackluster opening, over time it may be rediscovered and recognized by science fiction and movie fans as a classic that deserves to be lauded and highlighted as the best of a genre. That, after all, is the way it happened with Blade Runner. And 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Metropolis. This is nothing new. And it shouldn’t be surprising anyone… except those who dump all science fiction into the same tepid pot, of course.
Maybe if marketing had told audiences about all the tits they’d see, things would’ve been different…