"2017 and 2018" AKA "Film and Television's Desperate Attempt to Make Cyberpunk Relevant"
In the span of one year we have seen the release of four, count 'em, FOUR massive cyberpunk-themed projects. For those not in the know, cyberpunk is a niche sub-genre of sci-fi, typically identifiable by grungy neo-noire city-scapes where advanced tech, and hobos harmonize like peanut butter and jelly. Oh, and there's generally rain, lots of it.
First 2017 saw the release of Ghost in the Shell, the long-awaited adaptation of the anime by the same name. This was a pretty faithful adaptation that everyone shrugged off, and that I enjoyed immensely despite its flaws. The film was visually beautiful and had the easy sell of Scarlett Johannson in the lead role. Despite all of these factors working in its favor, it more or less bombed with $170 million in box office receipts off of a $110 million budget. Hm, okay, but we all knew Blade Runner 2049 would be the real cyberpunk success story of the year. Well....
If there was going to be a successful cyberpunk endeavor, it would have been Blade Runner 2049. The film had positive buzz, lots of it. I mean, it was directed by Denis Villeneuve, arguably one of the best filmmakers working today and the cast was fronted by household names Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. The film came out, and whiffed at the box office and was not even able to crack $300 million globally. This would have been a fine result for a middle-budget film, but Blade Runner 2049 is rumored to have cost in the $150-$200 million range, which means it would have had to gross at least $500 million to break even.
In my mind, Blade Runner 2049 was destined to be 2017's Mad Max: Fury Road, the rare genre film that transcends its niche confines. At the very least, the film was amazing and still has the chance to rise in the coming years, just as the original Blade Runner developed its massive following despite a disappointing theatrical run.
With Blade Runner 2049 disappointing, was there anything else for the industry to try in the realm of cyberpunk that could be successful? How about a binge-able TV show on Netflix? Netflix marketed the hell out of its big-budget cyberpunk show, Altered Carbon. The world looked like Blade Runner, but with an even darker edge and an interesting premise where people never really die, they just change bodies (or sleeves as they're called in the show). I thought the show was intriguing and the visuals were unlike anything I'd seen production-wise on a television show. Despite all of this, the show only garnered an "adequate" amount of views and received somewhat lukewarm-to-mildly positive reception.
Now we are faced with Duncan Jones' passion project, Mute, which just hit Netflix's streaming service. The numbers aren't in yet, but if the critical reception is anything to go by, this one could also be dead in the water. The film has the benefit of being led by the immensely likable and marketable Paul Rudd, but if the past is any indication, a cyberpunk project can have the biggest stars and still fail spectacularly. The jury is still sort of out on Mute, but it I was a betting man, well um, I wouldn't bet on it.
So where does this leave us with cyberpunk? Why are so few taking to this sub-genre; a sub-genre which to me is so fascinating and filled with endless possibilities? It's baffling to me that this sub-genre has had such a historically bad track record, even all the way back to the original Blade Runner. Could it be that audiences see the world's depicted in these films and television shows as a representation of what our world could be like in the future, and that nobody wants to dwell in a place that could be our own some day? No. Could these films have just been marketed poorly? Couldn't be, there was plenty of marketing and the trailers for most of these projects were impressive and enticing (to me at least).
I began to think about each of these projects individually and realized that their failures might not be associated with their cyberpunk qualities at all, just poor planning. First I realized why Ghost in the Shell was an obvious casualty. First, it had taken flak for casting Scarlett Johannson, a Caucasian woman, in a role that should have gone to someone of Asian descent, so hype was already near rock-bottom. In addition to this, the film came out while a string of massive hits and semi-hits were still soaking up business; those being Beauty and the Beast, King Kong and Saban's Power Rangers. Finally, it's reviews were unenthusiastic, dampening the hype even further.
Next up, Blade Runner 2049. For one, Blade Runner was not a big film back in the day, and only became successful through multiple re-releases and a growing cult following. The film also released in a questionable time of the year; early October. I feel like Blade Runner 2049 would have fared much better had it been stationed during the winter season, or even in February or March, where many films have been thriving lately. Finally, a film that is nearly three hours long was always going to be a tough sell in this day-and-age. I remember going to the theater to see this film and before me in line was a couple that asked how long the movie was. The man behind the counter replied "almost three hours", and they quickly scoffed and picked a different film.
Now we come once again to Altered Carbon. This one was a tad harder to pinpoint. Most viewers are pretty open to whatever new show comes out on Netflix, especially the heavily advertised ones. I tend to believe that in the case of Altered Carbon, everyone who saw Blade Runner 2049 had already had their fill and saw this as an obvious attempt to ape that film and didn't want to waste their precious time on it. Then the rest of Netflix's viewers just weren't interested in experiencing a very bleak, depressing show that spends its time in a dreary environment and simply decided to watch Friends for the fifteenth time instead.
Overall, I think cyberpunk as a sub-genre could have been alive-and-well had Ghost in the Shell been a well-received film that came out at a different time, had Blade Runner 2049 been shorter and also released at a different time and had Altered Carbon tried a little harder to distinguish itself from the pack. Needless to say, this could be the end of cyberpunk for a little while, which is a damn shame, because the worlds depicted in these various properties are some of my favorites to explore.