We prefer our invading aliens to be ruthless and genocidal, not animated and funny. That seems to be the box office lesson of the dueling alien-invasion flicks that debuted this weekend, with the marauders of 'Battle: Los Angeles' outselling the Martians of 'Mars Needs Moms' more than five to one.
'Battle' premiered at No. 1 with an estimated $36.0 million. That's at the upper end of what pundits predicted for the Marines-vs.-aliens movie, which made up in firepower what it lacked in starpower. A lot of observers are comparing it to 'District 9,' a sleeper with a similar plot that enjoyed a $37.4 million opening in 2009; but if anything, 'Battle's' debut is even more impressive, since it lacked the positive reviews and advance fanboy buzz of 'District 9,' and since it opened in the dead of winter rather than late in the summer blockbuster season.
Meanwhile, Disney's 'Mars Needs Moms' crashed like a meteor with a fifth-place opening that didn't even crack $7 million. (Its estimated $6.8 million take is about half what experts predicted.) This despite ubiquitous marketing, extra cash from 3-D showings and a release on more than 3,100 screens (211 of them with IMAX surcharges). But 'Mars' couldn't overcome middling reviews, poor word-of-mouth, and competition from fellow cartoons 'Rango' (last week's champ, which fell to No. 2 this week with a moderate 39 percent drop to an estimated $23.1 million) and Disney's own 'Gnomeo & Juliet' (still in the top 10 in its fifth week). Given that the movie now seems unlikely to recoup even a fifth of its reported $150 million budget, 'Mars' will likely go down as the first megaflop of 2011.
The weekend's other new wide release, 'Red Riding Hood,' opened at No. 3 with an estimated $14.1 million, near the low end of the range of predictions. As expected, the gothic horror/romance played well to an audience that was primarily female and under 25, in a week when there was little competition for that audience except from 'Beastly,' which fell four spots to No. 7 in its second weekend.
Rounding out the top five was 'The Adjustment Bureau,' which dropped 46 percent in its second weekend and fell two places to No. 4 on estimated earnings of $11.5 million. Clearly, much of its sci-fi/action thunder was stolen by 'Battle: Los Angeles.'
The full top 10:
1. 'Battle: Los Angeles,' $36.0 million (3,417 screens), new release
2. 'Rango,' $23.1 million (3,923), $68.7 million total
3. 'Red Riding Hood,' $14.1 million (3,030), new release
4. 'The Adjustment Bureau,' $11.5 million (2,847), $38.5 million
5. 'Mars Needs Moms,' $6.8 million (3,117), new release
6. 'Hall Pass,' $5.11 million (2,555), $34.9 million
7. 'Beastly,' $5.09 million (1,959), $17.0 million
8. 'Just Go With It,' $4.0 million (2,398), $94.0 million
9. 'The King's Speech,' $3.6 million (1,768), $129.1 million
10. 'Gnomeo & Juliet,' $3.5 million (2,585), $89.0 million
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.