Sci-Fi Elysium Edges the High-Fi Millers

In a crowded weekend, the two R-rated films out-grossed the kid-friendly 'Planes' and 'Percy Jackson'

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Kimberley French / Columbia Pictures

Like a shiver of Megalodon sharks rising from extinction to devour gullible viewers of the Discovery Channel, four new films entered wide release to prove that the summer movie season is not yet kaput.

Two big debuts is the norm for an August weekend, not the four — Elysium, We’re the Millers, Planes and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters — that invaded a total of 13,000 theaters and more than 20,000 screens. This swarm of activity had mixed results, and the No. 1 picture was not necessarily the real winner. When the smoke clears over the coming weeks, we may see that the mopey, dystopic Elysium falls short of the high-flying, dope-smuggling Millers.

[MONDAY UPDATE: In the actual weekend grosses, released today, Elysium totaled $29.8 million, 2% below the Sunday estimate. We’re the Millers, Planes and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters all finished within $200,000 of their announced figures. Blue Jasmine‘s final number was $2.3 million, 8% under yesterday’s prediction. That mild depression knocked the Woody Allen film down to 12th place in the weekend tally, behind Turbo.]

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the R-rated science-fiction action thriller starring Matt Damon as a future-world grunt trying to get from teeming, crime-ridden Los Angeles to a space station reserved for the wealthy, finished first at the North American box office with $30.4 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. That’s the third-highest opening for a movie in which Damon was top-billed, after his last two Jason Bourne movies, but well below the $37.4 million earned by Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9, four summers ago, on its way to a $201.8-million worldwide gross. The Elysium budget was also three to four times as high as the thrifty $30 million that the previous film cost.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Elysium)

District 9 was one of the few no-star, out-of-nowhere fantasies that managed to translate fanboy ardor into sensational B.O.; moviegoers heard the picture was special, and flocked to it. Elysium received respectful reviews but lacked the must-see buzz. The early audience, which skewed 61 percent male and 52 percent under the age of 30, handed Elysium a CinemaScore rating of “B” (A-minus for the 18-to-24 crowd), and spent $4.9 million to see it on 371 IMAX screens.

As all you classical scholars know, Elysium was the Greek conception of the afterlife, where the brave, the just and the well-connected went after death. If the movie is to have an after-opening-weekend life, it will have to attract many more customers abroad. Opening in 17 foreign markets this weekend, Elysium grossed an encouraging $10.9 million.

(READ: What was so cool about District 9?)

We’re the Millers, which opened Wednesday, finished second for the weekend, with $26.6 million, but $38 million for its first five days — a hefty haul for a film that cost only $37 million to produce. Starring Jason Sudeikis as a friendly drug dealer who thinks he can bring a giant stash of weed across the U.S.-Mexican border if three of his neighbors pretend to be his wife and kids, the movie shares a similar premise with The Joneses, the David Duchovny-Demi Moore satire that had a brief run a couple years back. The Millers is basically The Joneses, on drugs.

With marquee help from Jennifer Aniston, as the stripper who impersonates Sudeikis’s wife, The Millers looks to be the year’s fifth R-rated comedy smash, after The Heat, Identity Thief, The Hangover Part III and This Is the End  (the only PG-13 comedy hit: Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2). The appreciative audience, which was 51 percent female and 61 percent over 25, gave it an A-minus CinemaScore.

(SEE: The We’re the Millers trailer)

The kids must be watching the Little League World Series, or playing in it, because they stayed away in droves from this weekend’s PG debuts. Sea of Monsters, the needless 3-D sequel to the 2010 Percy Jackson & the Olympians, earned less in its first five days ($23.5 million) than the original did in three ($31.2 million). Budgeted at $90 million, and heavily promoted on discovery’s Shark Week, Sea of Monsters garnered an B-plus grade from CinemaScore, which is on the low side for a tween film.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of the first Percy Jackson movie)

Planes, a spinoff of Pixar’s Cars but made by Disney’s home-video DisneyToon Studios, pulled an A-minus CinemaScore in its very modest $22.5-million first weekend. Unlike most animated features, Planes didn’t get a Saturday-matinee bump. Children and their parents probably figure they already gave at the wickets this cartoon-laden summer, with Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and, to a lesser extent, Epic, Turbo and The Smurfs 2. But the Mouse House may not care. What Disney really wants to sell, here as with Cars and Cars 2, is not tickets but toys. The studio will keep peddling next summer, when Planes: Fire and Rescue is set for release.

(READ AND HEAR: How John Cleese Found His Planes Voice)

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine finished 11th this weekend, despite playing in just 116 theaters (up from 50 last week); its $2.5-million take translates to a gaudy $21,750 per-screen average. Among specialized openings, writer-director-star Lake Bell’s indie comedy In a World earned $71,000 in three Manhattan and L.A. theaters for an impressive $23,667 PSA. And Chennai Express, a north-south Indian romance with Deepika Padukone and megastar Shah Rukh Khan, broke the record for a Bollywood debut in the U.S. with $2.2 million at 196 Desi theaters.

(READ: Corliss on Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan)

Lovelace, a bio-pic of the Deep Throat porn actress Linda Lovelace starring Amanda Seyfried, opened to $184,000 in 118 theaters for a prim $1,559 PSA. As The Canyons proved last week, the promise of lurid sex no longer lures audiences. The raincoat brigade and other curiosity seekers realized decades ago that there’s no reason to pay for virtual sex in a theater when they can get it for free at home — where sex, like sharks, is still a hot item.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Lovelace by subscribing to TIME) 

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Elysium, $30.4 million, first weekend
2. We’re the Millers, $26.6 million; $38 million, first five days
3. Planes, $22.5 million, first weekend
4. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, $14.6 million; $23.5 million, first five days
5. 2 Guns, $11.1 million; $48.5 million, second week
6. The Smurfs 2, $9.5 million; $46.6 million, second week
7. The Wolverine, $8 million; $112 million, third week
8. The Conjuring, $6.7 million; $120.7 million, fourth week
9. Despicable Me 2, $5.7 million; $338.3 million, sixth week
10. Grown Ups 2, $3.7 million; $123.8 million, fifth week