Non Blockbusters That Became Classics

young - blade runner - rachel

Some of them were anticipated to become big hits and weren’t. Some were under-the-radar films that never caught a break at the box office.

Yet years later, many of them are regarded as classics, while the films that were blockbusters at the time have been more or less forgotten.

Below are some of the prime examples.


Blade Runner (1982)

Here was a summer release from the director of Alien and it starred Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Surely it was going to be a smash.

But in the summer of 1982, all attention was focused on a benevolent alien in a Steven Spielberg movie. That meant Blade Runner was a box office disappointment.

There were other factors as well. The movie was marketed as a sci-fi action movie on the level of Star Wars. While it did have some action, fans were confused by its contemplative nature. Phillip K Dick (who wrote the novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep which it was based on) and Luke Skywalker go together like oil and water. Plus, the studio insisted on adding a voice-over narration despite both Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford’s vehement objections. The voice-over was annoying and broke one of the cardinal rules of film-making: Show don’t tell.

So Blade Runner was a disappointment at the box office in 1982. Ten years later, Scott released a Director’s Cut edition. This one dropped the voice-over and added the ambiguous, far more effective ending that Scott wanted instead of the happy ending insisted on by the studio. This cut became a popular favorite on video and Blade Runner found its audience. In 2007, Scott released a final cut edition, which was the version he wanted to release in the first place. If you have yet to buy Blade Runner on DVD or Blue-Ray but plan to, this is the one to get.

So Blade Runner was a flop at the time. But today it is considered one of the cornerstones of science fiction movies.

Next: John Carpenter’s The Thing


Posted on February 14, 2014, in Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Blade Runner sure is a special movie, that’s for sure. Believe it or not, I actually saw it at the movie theatre in June of ’82. It sure was a heady film for a 10 year old kid, but I loved it, even if a 10 year old kid wasn’t its intended audience. Since I was there from the begining, It’s been interesting for me to watch over the years the film going from it’s initial tepid response not only from audiences but from critics as well, into what we have today which is something that’s universally regarded as a cinematic classic. June, 1982 sure was one hell of a month for science fiction, wasn’t it?
    By the way, I have to declare the month of June, 1982 as arguably the greatest month ever in the history of Science Fiction in film. June 4, 1982 saw the release of Star Trek II, which to this day is almost universally regarded as the best Star Trek film ever. Only one week later, June 11, 1982 saw the release of E.T., which became the biggest blockbuster of all time and universally loved. Then, June 25, 1982 saw not one, but two more sci-fi classics: Blade Runner, of course, and also John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is another film that just tanked at the box office but over the years has developed a strong fan base and is now regarded as a sci-fi classic.


    • I saw Blade Runner on HBO one night when my parents were out. We were allowed to watch it because it had Han Solo and Indiana Jones in it. So, it must be a family film, right? I was confused but intrigued by what I saw. My younger brother checked out fairly quickly. Right about the time he realized Chewie wasn’t going to show up, I think. I didn’t love it initially. But I remembered it very well. I don’t remember when I revisited it. But I do remember that in college I was the chairman of the cinema committee. My motivation for pursuing this position was that it enabled me to book movies in the student center theater. One of the first things I did was to book a midnight show of Blade Runner. It sold out immediately. It was a madhouse, but one of the best showings of Blade Runner you could ask for.

      I also snagged the promo poster. That was hanging in my dorm room all through college.


  2. Nice essay. “BR” was a futuristic mash-up of science-fiction and film noir, rather than a slam-bang science-fiction ka-BLOOOIE “Star Wars” thing. Which is of course why it “didn’t fly” then.

    There’s a decent book about (fine/interesting/good/great/underrated) movies that fell through the cracks for assorted reasons: “Produced and Abandoned.”

    re: films that were blockbusters at the time are more or less forgotten.
    Such as? Well: Flashdance (the movie that was going to make Jennifer Beals a star, remember?) / Fame / Footloose (did it really need a remake?) / Top Gun / Working Girl / Urban Cowboy / almost anything with Stallone that wasn’t “Demolition Man” / You can think of more…if you can remember ’em, heh.

    Heck, just go to any thrift store and look for the soundtrack albums in the bins.


  3. On the subject of Blade Runner, I HATE Scott’s ending. Hate it.

    I’ll take the phoned-in narration over the suggestion that Deckard is a replicant any day.


  4. Dark City is amazing. One of my favorites.


  5. I would be careful about broadly criticizing the use of voice over in cinematic storytelling (especially when one of the films you feature, Shawshank Redemption, leans heavily on the main character’s voice over).
    The voice over is a standard of cinematic noir in part because it allows the film to share language that otherwise could only be shared in a book (you know, the origin of noir to begin with).
    Goodfellas, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Blvd are all great movies which use voice overs.
    I absolutely understand the idea that it can be over-used and done poorly (it was just one of the things I disliked about Wolf of Wall Street), but clearly it can also be effective if done well.

    This is a good article and I love several of the included movies. It is sometimes hard to understand what critics were looking at, but it is important to remember that even critics are human beings who just might not respond to very complex sensory input the same way as many others. I have long ago dismissed the box office as any sort of measure of quality and I am never surprised when good art goes ignored by the majority.


    • Just out of curiosity, how do you feel about the voice over on Blade Runner? Cinema legend has it that Ford tried to tank it because he was so against the idea. If true, I feel like the joke is on him. Because his monotone delivery is a perfect fit for the world-weary blade runner and the neo noir setting.

      I used to dismiss the voice-over like everyone else. Director’s against it, then so am I. Especially if the director is a visionary like Ridley Scott. But since then, Scott has demonstrated repeatedly that he is not infallible. He and I disagree strongly on Blade Runner apparently.

      What really convinced me was watching the director’s cut of Blade Runner with Mindy. She’s not a sci fi fan at all. Without the narration, she was lost. She checked out as soon as the characters started speaking in gibberish. The narration contained an explanation for that. I can’t imagine how something like that would have played in 1982 without the narration.

      At the end of the day, I don’t care all that much whether the narration is there or not. But I actually recommend the theatrical cut to people watching Blade Runner for the first time. I steer people away from the director’s cut which for my money did the movie a great disservice. But there is a cut of Blade Runner for everybody I guess. Except my wife who can’t sit through it at all.


      • It has probably been 25 years since I watched Blade Runner from front to back. I agree that Ford’s unexpressive narration was appropriate for the mood of the film. By the time I saw it for the first time, I had already seen a few noir film classics. It didn’t take more than a few moments for my mind to make the association and figure out what Blade Runner was establishing in tone.
        I actually picked up the 30th anniversary Blu-ray for Christmas, but haven’t gotten around to plopping it into the player yet. Hmmm…

        Oh by the way, Frank Drebin of Police Squad also employed the voice over in 1982.


        • Sounds like you’re overdue for a revisit!


        • I’m re-watching the original theatrical release today.
          – the beautiful art direction looks even better in HD.
          – Ford’s performance on the voice over sure could have been better, even if it had been lazy.
          – The explanation Decker is given about the 4-year lifespan seems like clumsy exposition which would have fit into the VO pretty well. Wouldn’t the top Blade Runner have known that piece of information already? Maybe somebody who knows the film better can explain that to me.
          – It’s funny seeing the Atari electric billboard. I certainly thought they’d be around for a long time in 1982.
          – William Sanderson has a unique presence, but boy is he unnatural. It worked for him on Newhart, but it comes off here as just bad acting. The guy sure has a lot of credits on his resume, though.
          – for being the best Blade Runner there is, he sure gets his ass kicked a lot.
          – That’s a bad place to keep photographs that old. They’ll be destroyed in short order.
          – why are there so many date rapes by the leads in older movies?
          – I really hate sexy 80s saxophone. It mars what is otherwise a beautiful score by Vangelis


        • ok, so a second look reveals that the Nexus 6 replicants he is fighting are new to him, but they don’t do a very good job in explaining this. Some fleeting reference to a previous version would have gone a long way.
          They say Rachel is a Nexus 6, but then they say she is more advanced than them, with no ‘expiration date.’ This is confusing.
          Where are the Nexus 5s?


  6. The first time I saw BR I hated it. Three days later I saw it again, because I couldn’t get it out of my head. Like many classics that initially got bad reviews, it was a film that was not the film critics expected to see, and so they trashed it (happens to Ridley Scott a lot). I think I prefer the theatrical release because of the very last line in the voiceover, approximately: “We don’t know how long we’ve got. But then, who does?” One of the truest lines ever spoken.


  7. For a non-blockbuster classic film, I’d nominate The Big Kahuna. Why? There’s something about the screenplay and performances that stays with you, in the bordering-on-annoying way that classic material does sometimes. The movie’s themes can also stand the test of time required to be thought of as classic. Certainly it’s more a stage play than a true film, being all about the dialogue and the set being almost irrelevant. There’s no cinematography to speak of, no action and certainly no special effects. Yet when you watch this you do not miss any of those things. Kahuna, to me is one of Danny DeVito’s finest performances. I never heard of Peter Facinelli before seeing it, his role was very well done, and of course Kevin Spacey was dynamite. Spacey’s character was thoroughly irritating in the beginning and then thoroughly sympathetic by the end. That is not easy to accomplish and it stayed with me for weeks. Having your audience do emotional flip flops about your character is not new, for sure, but I would think it requires a range and depth that would be difficult to pull off. I got the DVD from amazon earlier this year and so glad to have this in the permanent collection as it invites repeated viewings.


  8. “The Thing was a massive failure at the box office, one that Carpenter never totally recovered from.”

    As far as I’m concerned, “Starman” was Carpenter’s last GREAT film. Yes, I realize that “They Live” has a following, but Carpenter was up there with Spielberg & Scorsese during the period he made “Assault on Precinct 13” & the aforementioned “Starman.”


    • Last I checked, we had an article on Mr. Carpenter in the pipeline. So I’m sure we’ll be discussing this more in-depth soon. I was late to the John Carpenter party. I don’t think I discovered him until Big Trouble in Little China. So I never experienced those lofty expectations followed by massive let-down that his early fans had.


  9. Great list, though many of these were loved by critics and many fans at the time even when not a hit.

    About “Shawshank Redemption” being the highest rated film on IMDb, well, you have to admit that that is sort of b.s.. It’s not THAT good.

    (On “Fight Club”) “Secondly, this film is not an advocate of mookdom: it’s a rant against the soul crushing aspects of modern society and a warning about the dangers of groupthink.”

    I loathe that movie. It reminds me of “American Psycho”, both filsm that pretend to be smarter than they really are. That, and I can’t stand Norton.

    Thank you for the article. DIdn’t know “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a success.


    • I agree with you about Shawshank. It’s over-rated. It’s a non-threatening movie filled with easily digestible emotional touchstones that runs non-stop on cable. That is a formula for being everybody’s favorite movie. It’s good. It might even be great. But it shouldn’t be topping any lists for greatest movie of all time. When people tell me Shawshank is their favorite movie, I am thinking to myself “You need to watch more movies”.

      I like Fight Club quite a bit. But I can agree with you that it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. The end is somewhat unsatisfying. There’s a line in the movie where Brad Pitt tells Edward Norton he’s clever and then asks how that is working out for him. The suggestion is that being clever doesn’t count for much. I actually think that’s true of the movie as well. I don’t recommend Fight Club to everyone. It’s one of those love it or hate it movies. Personally, I’m more in the love it camp, but I can see why people hate it too.


      • When people tell me Shawshank is their favorite movie, I am thinking to myself “You need to watch more movies”.

        Yeah. This. I cannot STAND that film. There’s nothing to it, and that’s even before it’s too blooming long. I rewatched it on TV a few weeks ago to try & see what I was missing, and wound up simultaneously having conversations on Facebook about it because I was bored as well as mystified. Tim Robbins, I like as an actor. Morgan Freeman, I like as an actor. So it’s not the cast. But ogodit’sDULL.

        “Fight Club”, OTOH, I love dearly, and enjoy more every time I watch it.


    • re: DIdn’t know “It’s a Wonderful Life” was not a success.

      In some ways, “IAWL” was the “Bladerunner” of its day: Both were relative bombs when released but later got iconic status.

      When you mention that you couldn’t stand Norton, did you mean Norton the actor or Norton’s character in “Flight Club”?


      • “When you mention that you couldn’t stand Norton, did you mean Norton the actor or Norton’s character in ‘Flight Club’?”

        Noton the actor. He’s got a smug false seriousness to him.

        Plus he was in “Death to Smoochy”, the greatest evil Hollywood ever produced.


  10. The problem with Office Space and Fight Club (as well as American Beauty which was also released in 1999 and told basically the same story as OS and FC) is that they only be appreciated if you understand the time in which they were made.

    The late 90’s was height of the longest period of peaceful prosperity in US history. As such a rash of movies came out and told everyone a stable, good paying, white collar job was the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. The idea seemed clever at the time but after the Great Recession and the two longest wars in American history it just comes off as whiny and childish.


    • re: a rash of movies came out and told everyone a stable, good paying, white collar job was the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.

      I see your point (and it’s a very good one), BUT those movies were about “the fine print” or “the catch” that came with the stable white collar job…such as selling your soul for “success” or working for some soulless company and/or doing soul-crushing work to make a living.

      While being employed is better than being unemployed, I do recall a time when I was working a reasonably good-paying job that left me feeling so drained at the end of the day that I didn’t really have a chance to “enjoy” the fruits of my labors. In other words, I had the money to “do stuff” but all I literally felt like doing was watching TV and going to sleep (not necessarily in that order).


      • right – I think the subtle, and not so subtle, point of many of these films is they satirize the experience of what it’s like in the workplace as America has become increasingly corporatized.


    • hmmmm

      I haven’t watched any of those movies in a while. I know I have watched Fight Club post 9/11. I thought it played well, but I wasn’t thinking about it from an economic standpoint. Honestly, I have done well during the recession. So perhaps my mindset hasn’t changed all that much with regards to the plight of the white collar drone. But I suppose those who have been struggling for a while wouldn’t have all that much patience for protagonists whose biggest problems are unfulfilling jobs.

      While I think all three films share some themes, I don’t think they tell the same story. Especially American Beauty which is more about the difference between appearances and reality than the work place. AB is more about family than jobs. But they do share some similar DNA that was born of the prosperity of the 90s.


  11. I agree with your assessment of Office Space. It really did not need the robbery high jinks and it petered out at the halfway mark. It should have just stayed in the office with the character “falling upward” to upper management. The first half though is such a classic and funny it makes it worth seeing.

    I never liked “Fight Club” because (spoiler..I guess if you have never seen the movie) the central twist never made sense to me. He was fighting himself literally. How do people watch that and want to follow him and not think he is just crazy?

    I also never really was a fan of Blade Runner. I can see why people love it (Rutger Hauer’s character dying is a classic line) but it was too depressing and bleak. Not just the story, but the dystopian nature of it and the rain and darkness. I also am not a big fan of Phillip K. Dick, so that is probably it too. I never like Minority Report and that sort of cartoon meets real life movie about drugs (forget its title). However, some people love that author so its a matter of taste.


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