Development began in August 2001 when producer Akiva Goldsman purchased Punke's manuscript. Iñárritu signed on to direct in August 2011 and in April 2014, after several delays due to other projects, Iñárritu confirmed that he was beginning work on The Revenant and that DiCaprio would play the lead role. Principal photography began in October 2014. Location and crew concerns delayed the film from May to August 2015.
The film premiered at the TCL Chinese Theatre on December 16, 2015 and had a limited release on December 25, expanding on January 8, 2016. It received positive reviews from critics, with the performances, direction and cinematography receiving praise. The Revenant won three Golden Globe Awards, five BAFTA Awards and at the 88th Academy Awards, Iñárritu, DiCaprio and Emmanuel Lubezki won the awards for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography, respectively. DiCaprio also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Actor and BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 1823, Hugh Glass guides Andrew Henry’s trappers through unorganized territory. While he and his half-Pawnee son, Hawk, are hunting, the company's camp is attacked by an Arikara war party. Guided by Glass, the survivors travel on foot to Fort Kiowa, as traveling downriver will make them vulnerable. After docking, the crew stashes the pelts near the shore.
Glass is badly mauled by a grizzly bear and left close to death. Trapper John Fitzgerald, fearful of another Arikara attack, argues that the group must mercy-kill Glass and keep moving. Henry agrees, but is unable to pull the trigger; instead, he offers money for someone to stay with Glass. When the only volunteers are Hawk and the young Jim Bridger, Fitzgerald agrees to stay for money, to recoup his losses from the abandoned pelts.
After the others leave, Fitzgerald attempts to smother Glass but is discovered by Hawk. Fitzgerald stabs him to death as Glass watches helplessly. The next morning, Fitzgerald convinces Bridger that the Arikara are approaching and they must abandon Glass. After they depart, Fitzgerald admits he lied. When Fitzgerald and Bridger meet Henry at the fort, Fitzgerald tells him that Glass died and Hawk vanished.
Glass begins an arduous journey through the wilderness. He performs crude self-surgery and eludes the pursuing Arikara who are looking for the Chief's kidnapped daughter, Powaqa. Glass encounters Pawnee refugee Hikuc who says that "revenge is in the Creator's hands." The men share bison meat and travel together. After a hallucinogenic experience, Glass discovers Hikuc hanged by French hunters. He infiltrates their camp and sees the leader raping Powaqa. He frees her, kills two hunters, and steals Hikuc's horse, leaving his canteen behind. The next morning, Glass is ambushed by the Arikara and driven over a cliff on his horse. He survives the night by eviscerating the horse and sheltering inside its carcass.
A French survivor staggers into Fort Kiowa and Bridger recognizes his canteen as Glass's. Believing it stolen, Henry organizes a search party. Fitzgerald, realizing Glass is alive, empties the outpost’s safe and flees. The search party finds the exhausted Glass. Enraged, Henry orders Bridger arrested, but Glass vouches that he was deceived and reveals that Fitzgerald murdered his son. Glass and Henry set out in pursuit of Fitzgerald.
After the two split up, Fitzgerald ambushes and kills Henry. Glass uses Henry's corpse on his horse as a decoy and shoots Fitzgerald in the arm. He pursues Fitzgerald to a riverbank where they engage in a brutal fight. Glass is about to kill Fitzgerald, but spots a band of Arikara downstream. He remembers Hikuc's words and pushes Fitzgerald downstream into the hands of the Arikara. The chief fatally scalps Fitzgerald and the Arikara spare Glass. Heavily wounded, Glass retreats into the mountains where he is visited by the spirit of his wife.
Development of The Revenant began in August 2001, with producer Akiva Goldsman acquiring the rights to Michael Punke's then-unpublished manuscript. David Rabe had written the film's script. The production was picked up by Park Chan-wook, with Samuel L. Jackson in mind to star. Park later left the project. The development stalled until 2010, when Mark L. Smith wrote a new adaptation of the novel for Steve Golin's Anonymous Content. In May 2010, Smith revealed that John Hillcoat was attached to direct the film and that Christian Bale was in negotiation to star the movie. Hillcoat left the project in October 2010. Jean-François Richet was considered to replace him, but Alejandro G. Iñárritu signed on to direct in August 2011. Goldsman was also confirmed to be producing with Weed Road Pictures. In November, New Regency Productions joined to produce with Anonymous Content, and 20th Century Fox was confirmed to be distributing the film. Days later, Iñárritu stated that he was seeking Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn for the two lead roles.
Once Iñárritu agreed to direct, he began working with Smith on script rewrites. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Smith admitted during this process he was unsure if Iñárritu would even be able to film some of the sequences they wrote. He recalled, "He would have some ideas and I would say, 'Alejandro, we can’t pull this off. It’s not going to work,' and he would say, 'Mark, trust me, we can do this.' In the end, he was right."
The film was put on hold in March 2012, as New Regency hired Iñárritu to direct an adaptation of Flim-Flam Man, Jennifer Vogel's non-fiction book about her criminal father. Penn was also under consideration for the lead role in that film. In December 2012, Iñárritu announced that his next film would be Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a comedy-drama about an actor who once played a famous superhero. For his work, Iñárritu won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and the film won Best Picture. Filming took place in March 2013. Iñárritu was scheduled to begin production on The Revenant after Birdman wrapped.
The film was granted a production budget of $60 million, with $30 million funded by New Regency. Brett Ratner's RatPac-Dune Entertainment, a joint venture between Ratner's RatPac Entertainment and 20th Century Fox's former financing partner, Dune Entertainment, also funded the film. Worldview Entertainment, who also co-financed Birdman, was originally set to fund the film but backed out in July 2014 due to the departure of its CEO, Christopher Woodrow. New Regency approached 20th Century Fox for additional funding, but the company declined, citing the pay-or-play contracts made for both DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, which would require that the actors be paid regardless of whether the film is completed. Annapurna Pictures' Megan Ellison entered negotiations to finance the film shortly after. The Chinese company Guangdong Alpha Animation and Culture Company partially financed the film.
Principal photography for The Revenant began in October 2014. A planned two-week break from filming in December was extended to six weeks which forced Tom Hardy to drop out of Suicide Squad. In February 2015, Iñárritu, who shot the film using natural lighting, stated that production would last "until the end of April or May", as the crew is "shooting in such remote far-away locations that, by the time we arrive and have to return, we have already spent 40% of the day". Brad Weston, president and CEO of New Regency Pictures, stated that principal photography had been challenging due to the ambitious nature of the film. Ultimately, principal photography wrapped in August 2015.
The film was shot in twelve locations in three countries: Canada, the United States, and Argentina. In Canada, filming took place in Calgary and Fortress Mountain in Alberta, in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary, the Badlands near Drumheller, and at Squamish and Mammoth Studios, Burnaby, in British Columbia. The scenes in the waterfall were filmed at the Kootenai Falls near Libby, Montana. While the initial plan was to film entirely in Canada, the weather was ultimately too warm, leading the filmmakers to locations near the Rio Olivia at the tip of Argentina with snow on the ground, to shoot the film's ending.
Crew members often complained about difficult shoots, with many quitting or being fired. Mary Parent was then brought in as a producer. Iñárritu stated that some of the crew members had left the film, explaining that "as a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra." On his experience filming, DiCaprio stated: "I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly."
Iñárritu had stated that he originally wanted to shoot the film chronologically, a process that would have added $7 million to the film's production budget. Iñárritu later confirmed that the film was shot in sequence, despite Hardy's statement that the film could not be shot chronologically, due to weather conditions.
In July 2015, it was reported that the film's budget had ballooned from the original $60 million to $95 million, and by the time production wrapped it had reached $135 million.
The visual effects for The Revenant were produced primarily by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Other companies, such as Moving Picture Company (MPC) and Cinesite, also created visual effects for the film.
The musical score for The Revenant was composed by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto who had previously scored the Square Enix's Dawn of Mana, The Last Emperor (directed by Bernardo Bertolucci), Poppoya (directed by Yasuo Furuhata), Tony Takitani (directed by Jun Ichikawa the director of the Mitsui ReHouse commercial from 1997 to 1999 starring Chizuru Ikewaki and Mao Inoue), and German electronic musician Alva Noto with additional music composed by Bryce Dessner. The main body of the score was recorded at the Seattlemusic Scoring Stage in the Bastyr Chapel in greater Seattle, Washington by musicians of the Northwest Sinfonia. Sakamoto conducted these sessions. Bryce Dessner's portion of the score was performed by the 25-piece Berlin-based orchestra known as "s t a r g a z e" under conductor André de Ridder. Additional licensed music includes "Become Ocean", the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning work of John Luther Adams as recorded by the Seattle Symphony with conductor Ludovic Morlot and an excerpt of "Jetsun Mila" from French musician and composer Eliane Radigue. A soundtrack album was released digitally on December 25, 2015, and on CD on January 8, 2016. Milan Records will release a vinyl pressing of the soundtrack in April 2016.
The score by Sakamoto and Noto was ruled ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Original Score at the 2016 Oscars as it was deemed that it was "assembled from the music of more than one composer".
The film was accompanied by a 44-minute documentary, named A World Unseen, highlighting the process of making the production. A World Unseen was released on January 21, 2016, on YouTube; both the date and medium of the documentary's release made it ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in the same year as the film nomination.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, film critic Wai Chee Dimock compared The Revenant's themes to those addressed in the literary works of James Fenimore Cooper, particularly The Last of the Mohicans. Dimock argues that the film re-interprets the concept of "half-breeds" from a derogatory idea that Cooper despised to an aesthetic way in which to see the world. She compared both works' protagonists—Glass and Hawk-eye—as literary foils, with Glass living an inversion of the latter's biography and perspective.
In the documentary of the film titled A World Unseen, Iñárritu has stated that for the main themes of the film he revisits the issues and concerns of intense parental and filial relations, which audiences of his previous films readily recognize as a recurrent theme in his previous work. Regarding the theme of revenge seen throughout The Revenant, Iñárritu has stated that the approach of vengeance seen in the film needs to be significantly tempered by anyone who would want to see vengeance as either an effective or useful moral to be applied in life. In the end, Iñárritu states, there can only be disappointment and lack of fulfillment for anyone who looks to revenge as providing a higher purpose for living or a life defining purpose.
The Guardian reported, "The backstory about Glass’s love for a Pawnee woman is fiction. It has been suggested the real Glass had such a relationship, but there’s no firm evidence—and no evidence that he had any children. ... As for the ending, it has been changed in one significant way: in real life, nobody got killed."
American Rifleman reported, "There was no Pawnee wife or children to motivate him, no real cause for revenge, either, as he understood that Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald honestly thought he was as good as dead. He may have done the same thing if their roles were reversed. The one constant in every telling of the tale until “The Revenant” opened was Hugh Glass wanted his gun back." The reporting about this story indicates that Glass did track down Fitzgerald and demand the rifle's return, which Fitzgerald sullenly complied with.
In one scene, a Pawnee character is accompanied by a voiceover in Inupiak, which is spoken in Arctic Alaska, thousands of kilometers away and a different language family from Pawnee. The voiceover was taken from a John Luther Adams recording; the words originally came from an Inuit woman named Uvavnuk, an angakkuq (shaman) and oral poet.
Canadian actor Roy Dupuis was strongly critical of the movie for portraying French-Canadian voyageurs as murderous rapists. Dupuis was originally offered a role as a voyageur, but he rejected it due to perceptions of anti-French bias and historical inaccuracies. According to Allan Greer, the Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America, "generally the American traders had a worse reputation than the Canadians."
Iñárritu has made a special point of emphasizing the importance of historical issues of ethnicity approached in the film and reflected in the mixed ethnic background of Hugh Glass's son portrayed in the film (portrayed as half Pawnee by Glass's wife) as relating to his own life and his identification with ethnic concerns. Iñárritu has referred to having encountered constant xenophobia and stated that: "These constant and relentless xenophobic (comments) have been widely spread by the media without shame, embraced and cheered by leaders and communities around the U.S. The foundation of all this is so outrageous that it can easily be minimized as an SNL sketch, a mere entertainment, a joke ... I debated with myself, if I should bring up this uncomfortable subject tonight but in light of the constant and relentless xenophobic comments that have been expressed recently against my Mexican fellows, it is inevitable."
The massive pile of bison skulls depicted in the film (based upon a real life photograph from the mid-1870s) is also an anachronism. The slaughter of bison on that scale was not yet underway in the early 1820s. Similarly for the assertion that the "Anglos" had taken the Indians' land, which was not to occur in that part of the country for another 20 years. Trapper John Fitzgerald refers to the area of modern-day Texas as if it is a part of the Union or an aligned territory. However, in 1823 Texas was a sparsely populated (in 1825, Texas had about 3,500 people, with most of Mexican descent) province of Mexico.
The Revenant had a limited release in the United States on December 25, 2015, including Los Angeles—making it eligible for the 88th Academy Awards—before being released nationwide on January 8, 2016. The film opened in Australia on January 7, 2016 and in the UK on January 15, 2016. In the Philippines, the film's release date was originally set for January 27, 2016, but it was eventually delayed a week to February 3, 2016. Although studios initially chose not to pursue a theatrical release in China, following the film's three wins at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016, the film was granted a release in China but with several cuts. It was released on March 18, 2016.
The DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray were released on April 19, 2016 in the US. Opening sales of the DVD along with on-line streaming orders placed The Revenant as number one in sales at Amazon. Distribution to major rental outlets in the US was done on May 17, 2016.
On December 20, 2015, less than a week before its release, screener copies of The Revenant and numerous Oscar contenders, including The Hateful Eight, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, were uploaded to many websites. The FBI linked the case to co-CEO Andrew Kosove of Alcon Entertainment. Kosove claimed that he had "never seen this DVD[s]", and that "it never touched his hands." In October 2016, a former 20th Century Fox employee was fined $1.12 million in a separate case for uploading both The Revenant and The Peanuts Movie online.
The Revenant grossed $183.6 million in the United States and Canada and $349.3 million in other countries for a worldwide total of $533 million, against a production budget of $135 million. Deadline.com calculated the net profit of the film to be $61.6 million, when factoring together all expenses and revenues.
In North America, The Revenant opened in limited release on December 25, 2015, and over the weekend grossed $474,560 from four theaters in New York City and Los Angeles ($118,640 per screen), finishing twenty-third at the box office. It was the second-biggest theater average of 2015 behind the $130,000 four-screen debut of Steve Jobs. The film earned a total of $1.6 million from its two-week limited run before expanding wide on January 8, 2016, across 3,371 theaters.
It made $2.3 million from its early Thursday preview showings from 2,510 theaters. On its opening day, the film earned $14.4 million, ranking first at the box office. The film grossed $39.8 million in its opening weekend from 3,375 theaters, exceeding initial projections by 70%, and finishing second at the box office behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($42.4 million), which was on its fourth weekend of play. It was the director’s biggest opening of all-time, and the fourth-biggest for DiCaprio and supporting actor Tom Hardy. Critics noted that The Force Awakens had an advantage, considering that it was playing at 781 more theaters, that Sunday matinees are family-friendly, and since it had the benefit of playing in all North American IMAX theaters. Nevertheless, The Revenant played very balanced across the U.S. and overperformed in all states except the Northeast region. Its wide release weekend is among the top openings in the month of January. It finally topped the box office in its fifth weekend overall and third weekend in wide release after competing with Ride Along 2 in its second weekend. It added a $16 million in its third weekend, which was down 49.7% but topped the box office, despite a blizzard blanketing most of the East Coast which reportedly hurt many films' box office performance. The following weekend it was overtaken by Fox’s own animated movie Kung Fu Panda 3 thereby topping the box office for just one weekend. Following the announcement of the Oscar nominees on January 14, The Revenant witnessed the biggest boost among the Best Picture category, jumping from $54.1 million to $170.5 million, an increase of +215% up to the Oscar ceremony in the weekend ending February 28.
Outside North America, the film secured a release in 78 countries. It made $20.5 million from 2,407 screens in just 18 markets, placing behind The Force Awakens at the international box office chart and first among newly released films. The following weekend, it added $32.3 million from 25 markets on 4,849 screens. The film topped the international box office in its third weekend—the same weekend when it topped the U.S. box office—overtaking The Force Awakens with $33.7 million from 48 markets. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, it took the No. 1 spot with $7.87 million or £5.2 million ($7.4 million) from 589 theaters and remained there for a second weekend declining only by 24% with £3.86 million ($5.5 million), as well as for a third weekend. Similarly, in Russia, it passed The Force Awakens to take the top spot with $7.5 million from 1,063 screens. In France, it has the biggest opening day in Paris and the third biggest opening weekend of 2016 (so far) with $8.2 million. It also opened at No. 1 in Mexico ($5.1 million), Spain ($4 million), Holland ($1.3 million), Belgium ($1.1 million), Argentina ($955,000), Sweden ($914,000), South Korea, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Egypt and Portugal among other markets. In Germany ($4.6 million) and Australia ($2.9 million), it debuted at No. 2 both behind The Force Awakens and in Brazil ($2.17 million) behind The Ten Commandments. It had one of the top ten openings of all time for a Fox film, not accounting for inflation in South Korea with $5.7 million and went on to top the box office there for a second weekend with $3.22 million despite cold weather affecting theater attendance resulting in low box office performance. In Russia, despite not opening at No. 1, it topped the box office in its second weekend with $4.4 million—more than The Force Awakens—and went on to top for a third weekend with $3.6 million. In China it had an opening day of around $11 million from more than 11,000 screens, including $250,000 in midnight previews, and $23 million in two days. In its opening weekend, it grossed $31 million, coming in second place behind the animated Zootopia. IMAX comprised $2.3 million on 278 screens. In terms of total earnings, its largest markets outside of the U.S. and Canada are China ($58.6 million), the United Kingdom ($32.8 million), Germany ($28.7 million) and France ($28.2 million). The film opened in Japan on March 23.
The Revenant received positive reviews from critics, with DiCaprio and Hardy's performances, Iñárritu's directing and Lubezki's cinematography all being praised. However, the film's runtime was criticized. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81%, based on 327 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "As starkly beautiful as it is harshly uncompromising, The Revenant uses Leonardo DiCaprio's committed performance as fuel for an absorbing drama that offers punishing challenges -- and rich rewards." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 76 out of 100, based on 50 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Reviewers cited in a CBS News survey of critics highly praised DiCaprio's performance, referring to it as an "astonishing testament to his commitment to a role" and as an "anchoring performance of ferocious 200 percent commitment." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called DiCaprio's acting "a virtuoso performance, thrilling in its brute force and silent eloquence." Writing for NY Magazine/Vulture, David Edelstein called the film a "tour de force" and "[b]leak as hell but considerably more beautiful," but noted the film had "traditional masculinity instead of a search for what illuminates man's inhumanity to man."
Justin Chang of Variety wrote Iñárritu "increasingly succumbs to the air of grim overdetermination that has marred much of [his] past work" and it was "an imposing vision... but also an inflated and emotionally stunted one." Stephanie Zacharek, writing for TIME magazine, gave a positive review to the film stating: "Inarritu may have fashioned The Revenant as the ultimate endurance test, but as Glass, DiCaprio simply endures. He gives the movie a beating heart, offering it up, figuratively speaking, alive and bloody on a platter. It—he—is the most visceral effect in the movie: revenge served warm. Bon Appetite." Richard Brody of The New Yorker was critical of the film, and said that Emmanuel Lubezki's images were mere "pictorial ornament[s] to [Alejandro González Iñárritu's] bland theatrical stagings.”
Slant Magazine's writer Ed Gonzalez suggested that the Slant staff in large part disliked the film: "Our contempt for The Revenant knows no limits." Gonzalez unfavorably compared Iñárritu's work to Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World. In the official review, Slant writer Jaime N. Christley wrote: "The Revenant [is] a misery-fest that plants its narrative flags as carelessly as a Roland Emmerich blockbuster, guaranteeing us a viewing experience almost as arduous as the trials depicted on screen, before reaching a conclusion that's sealed the moment audiences first meet the key players. After an obligatory false calm, The Revenant's proper opening scene is a show-stopping massacre at a fur-trapper's campsite. It's the kind of thing Howard Hawks would have handled—and did, in The Big Sky—in under 90 seconds, with mostly off-camera particulars and minimal effects, but González Iñárritu forces it to resemble the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan as much as history or sense will allow, and then some." The Revenant was ranked 22nd on Metacritic's and 79th on Rotten Tomatoes' list of best films of 2015.
The Revenant has received numerous award nominations and wins, particularly for DiCaprio's performance, Iñárritu's direction and Lubezki's cinematography. At the 88th Annual Academy Awards, Iñárritu won the Best Director award for the second time in a row, Emmanuel Lubezki won for the third time in a row the award for Best Cinematography and DiCaprio won his first award for Best Actor. Hardy lost his category to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, and the film itself lost Best Picture to Spotlight.
At the 73rd Golden Globe Awards it won three awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Actor – Drama. It also had a nomination for Best Original Score. On January 14, 2016, the film received 12 Academy Award nominations (more than any other film at the ceremony), including Best Picture and Best Director for Iñárritu, as well as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, for DiCaprio and Hardy, respectively. On February 14, 2016, the film received the most awards at 69th British Academy Film Awards out of eight-nominations, with five, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Leading Actor. It received nine Critics' Choice Awards nominations, winning two – for DiCaprio as Best Actor and Best Cinematography for Lubezki.
Tom Hardy won the Best British Actor award at the London Film Critics' Circle and was runner-up for Best Supporting Actor at Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association. DiCaprio was awarded Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role award at 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards, while Iñárritu received Outstanding Directing – Feature Film award at 68th Directors Guild of America Awards. It received five Satellite Awards nominations, winning the award of Best Actor for DiCaprio.
On May 2, 2016, Time magazine included both DiCaprio and Iñárritu in its issue of the 100 Most Influential People of 2015, with a cover photograph of DiCaprio on the magazine. John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, wrote a short testimonial to DiCaprio for this issue of Time stating that DiCaprio's dedication drives him to succeed and "that's how he takes himself back 200 years to create an Oscar-winning, bear-brawling, powerhouse performance in The Revenant."