LOS ANGELES -- Planes, demigods and a weed-toting RV crowded the multiplex this weekend, but none were a match for an action-minded Matt Damon.
Damon's sci-fi thriller Elysium topped a raft of new films at the box office, claiming $30.5 million, according to studio estimates from Hollywood.com.
The film met most analysts' expectations and, more importantly, ended a string disappointing debuts for big-budget, original films this summer. The $115 million Elysium, which also stars Jodie Foster, comes on the heels of nine-figure duds like R.I.P.D. ($13 million debut), The Lone Ranger ($29 million) and White House Down $$25 million).
Elysium claimed the crown on one of Hollywood's busiest weekends, with four new movies hitting cineplexes, all aimed at different demographics.
But the sophomore film from director Neill Blomkamp, who directed 2009's Oscar-nominated District 9, connected well enough with critics and audiences to top the field. About 66% of critics gave the movie a thumbs-up, compared with a so-so approval rating from 72% of audiences, according to rottentomatoes.com.
Given the movie's steep expectations, "Elysium's debut is a relative draw," says David Mumpower of boxofficeprophets.com.
He says that compared with Blomkamp's first film, which featured a no-name cast and a budget less than a third of Elysium's, the new film falls short. "What is troubling is that the addition of bona fide A-list talents...added nothing to the bottom line of Elysium's box office potential," Mumpower says.
Still, the film resonated with fans who loved Damon in the Jason Bourne series, says Jeff Bock, vice-president of Exhibitor Relations. "Audiences don't love all of Matt Damon's films," Bock says. "But they love seeing Matt Damon versus the world."
And the opening, analysts say, may solidify Blomkamp's standing in the world of science fiction diehards, where respected directors can be as rare as girls.
Despite the middling debut, "every male between the ages of 18-49 in the free world desperately wants him to announce that his next project is Halo," the video phenomenon that has gamers frothing for a big-screen adaptation.
The surprise of the weekend was the raunchy, critically-pummeled comedy We're the Millers, which took second with $26.6 million. Produced for $37 million, some analysts predicted the Jennifer Aniston stoner comedy could get lost in the avalanche of new films.
"Elysium won the battle," Mumpower says. "We're the Millers won the war."
Not among critics, 41% of whom recommended the movie. But 80% of moviegoers liked it, rottentomatoes.com says.
Disney's Pixar-like animated comedy Planes took third place with $22.5 million. While analysts predicted a debut of at least $25 million, the film's grade of A- from pollsters CinemaScore could give the film legs through the rest of August.
As expected, the teen-oriented fantasy film Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters finished last among newcomers with $14.6 million and fourth place, meeting most expectations.
The action-comedy 2 Guns rounded out the top five with $11.1 million.
Final figures are due Monday.