Denis Villeneuve had become one of the most exciting filmmakers of the 21st century, as he directed some of the most gripping crime dramas of the 2010s and then made the leap to sci-fi epics like Dunes. Along with Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, his name attached to a project causes as much fan reaction as any actor who is cast in a movie.
However, based on the box office performance of his films, this has not always been the case. It’s taken long enough for the world to realize how great the French filmmaker is, as even some of his now-beloved movies are incredibly under-grossing.
8 Maelstrom (2000) – $254,000
Although Villeneuve’s first film was, August 32 on Earth, which was screened at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, it was not released theatrically. It’s been 2000s Maelstrom the director’s first major release. It’s an interesting film because, while it establishes the filmmaker’s style, like depressed narratives about protagonists searching for answers, it also does things it never returned to.
There are a lot of comedy and fantasy elements in Maelstrom, because it is even told by a fish, but the director rarely returned to humor. But that could very well be that it didn’t work out very well, as the film did little more than pocket change.
seven Enemy (2013) – $3.46 million
Enemy is the most misunderstood film of Villeneuve’s filmography, but it is also the most meditative and the most ambiguous of all his work. The film follows a history teacher who discovers he has a dangerous doppelganger (Jake Gyllenhaal). However, as exciting as it sounds, this is much more of a character study than a thriller.
But even with Gyllenhaal’s name attached to the film, it wasn’t enough to sell the wild concept to mainstream audiences. While it’s unclear exactly what the budget was, given Gyllenhaal’s starring role and transparent digital effects, it’s hard to believe Enemy box office consumption was sufficient to cover marketing costs.
6 Fires (2010) – $6.78 million
After being an indie darling on the festival circuit, premiering at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Fires picked up a surprising amount of traction. It became a huge hit in its native Canada and found modest success in the United States as well.
Fires follows two twin girls who discover their mother’s sordid past during the Lebanese civil war. And although blockbuster movies like Dunes and Prisoners will always be the most well-known entries in the director’s filmography, it’s the quietly dramatic 2010 film that is actually Villeneuve’s best film according to IMDB.
5 Sicario (2015) – $84.9 million
Before becoming the guru of science fiction cinema, while Villeneuve then directed Blade Runner 2049 and Dunes, the filmmaker was the best director of suspenseful Hollywood thrillers. Sicario is the best example of this, as it follows one of Villeneuve’s best female characters, Kate, who helps a government task force take down a Mexican cartel boss.
There was also a sequel that followed in 2018, but it wasn’t directed by Villeneuve, and it’s no coincidence that it made less money and had less positive reviews. However, since writer Taylor Sheridan envisioned it as a trilogy, Villeneuve could always come back to finish what he started.
4 Prisoners (2013) – $122.1 million
Prisoners was Villeneuve’s first English-language film and his breakthrough. Another collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as a gripping performance by Hugh Jackman, the crime thriller is a masterclass in dramatic acting. The star power helped the film gain more box office traction than this genre of film normally wouldn’t have.
Jackman’s performance is even more grizzled than any of his Wolverine takes until Logan, as he plays a father who takes justice into his own hands by tracking down the kidnapper of his children. Prisoners one of the best “missing person” movies to watch, and despite being a slow-paced and often difficult-to-watch drama, audiences showed up in droves.
3 Arrival (2016) – $203 million
Arrival marks the first of many sci-fi films Villeneuve would direct, but what makes the film surprising is that it’s not based on any existing properties. Although it is an adaptation of the short story Story of your life, it’s almost completely unknown to the general public, and that’s what makes the $200 million box office haul such an achievement.
Where anything unrelated to a series or franchise is generally considered a risk for studios, Arrival paid a lot of time. And it also achieved incredible visual effects with its modest $47 million budget, especially since the film used virtually no green screen.
2 Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – $259 million
Despite earning a respectable amount of money, Blade Runner 2049 was a big bomb. It was almost a crazy decision made by Warner Bros. to give the film a budget of nearly $200 million. Although the original blade runner became a cult classic, which also flopped upon its theatrical release.
Giving a sequel to a box office bombshell with such an inflated budget and then giving it an R rating, limiting who can see it, is a huge risk. Unfortunately, in this case, the risk did not pay off. However, that doesn’t mean the sci-fi movie isn’t good, and 2049 is one of many sci-fi flops that deserves a second chance.
1 Dune (2021) – $397 million
Even despite being released during a global pandemic, Dunes is by far the most profitable film in Villeneuve’s catalogue. The result could have gone either way because, just like Blade Runner 2049, the 2021 film is part of a failed sci-fi franchise.
However, with rave reviews, an ensemble packed with fresh-faced A-list actors, and a PG-13 rating, Villeneuve and Warner Bros. have clearly learned from the mistakes of 2049. Based on its success, the film has become one of the most beloved movies of 2021, a sequel has been greenlit, and who knows how much more it might have been had it not been for pandemic.
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