Box office: Matt Damon’s ‘Elysium’ latest sign of a surreal summer

Matt Damon, Alice Braga and Emma Tremblay in "Elysium."
(Columbia TriStar )

This past weekend, Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi pic “Elysium” opened to $30.5 million. Though it won the weekend, it was an unremarkable number -- and that’s what made it so remarkable.

“Elysium” might have been expected to jump up a lot closer to $40 million. After all, its predecessor, 2009’s “District 9,” which was also an idea-laden piece of futurism from Blomkamp, took in $37.5 million on its opening weekend.

Sure, critical assessments were stronger for the previous film. But Blomkamp is now a known commodity, a major plus for an opening weekend. And the movie featured a far bigger star in Matt Damon. “Elysium” came out in an identical frame as “District 9,” the second weekend in August and against three other wide releases. Yet its numbers were down nearly 20%.

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“Elysium” also doesn’t seem to be generating the kind of word-of-mouth excitement that caused “District 9" to have staying power and tally more than three times its opening weekend number in the final domestic analysis ($116 million).

Depending on how it performs in the weeks ahead (and overseas), the new film, which cost $115 million for Media Rights Capital to make and tens of millions more for Sony to market, may or may not come out in the black.

What’s most notable about the “Elysium” dip is that it gives the lie to the bit of wisdom that, when it comes to summer moviegoing, audiences are simply tired of empty spectacle.

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Well, Blomkamp is known for putting thoughtfulness behind his effects. Like “District 9’s” fabulist look at apartheid, “Elysium” is a movie about earthbound and orbiting haves and have-nots to mirror our own wealth gap -- yet it took a hit.

It would be easy enough to explain the drop if overall moviegoing is going down. But it isn’t: Box-office totals are up more than 10% over last year.

It has been a year filled with such curiosities.

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Low-budget horror has ruled the roost; big-budget adventure has faltered. Coming into the summer, “The Conjuring” could have had hardly been expected to take in quadruple the numbers of “RIPD.” But it has.

“Despicable Me 2" has become the second-highest-grossing movie of the year; if anyone had that in their office pool, book them on a trip to Vegas immediately.

Superheroes seemed immune to this volatility -- until “The Wolverine” came out and merely did so-so business. The Hugh Jackman movie is part of a group of films with proven elements attached -- including “Pacific Rim” and “The Hangover Part III” -- that will fail to reach the summer watermark of $150 million, but a Sandra Bullock cop comedy and an animated movie about cavemen earlier in the year both did.

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Trying to figure out what works is harder than getting on to the rich confines of Elysium.

There are three weekends left to the summer moviegoing season. For many studios, it’s a season that can’t end fast enough, such has been the topsy-turviness. Having a big name is no guarantee of popularity. Animated and horror films have a higher batting average, but they’re hardly foolproof. Spectacle doesn’t necessarily mean big money. And now, neither does attempting to replicate the magic of “District 9.”


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Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT