In an entertainment market where Mother Jones subscribers flocked to ultraviolent action movies, "Elysium" would have no trouble finding an audience.
But here on planet Earth, the film - a transparently lefty and unashamedly bloody morality tale starring Matt Damon - is shaping up as an expensive, unmarketable misfire.
It turns out, you see, that the film's apparent target demo - call them UFC fanboys who organize petition drives for the Green Party - is ... elusive.
Yes, "Elysium," opened with $29.8 million domestically to nose out Jennifer Aniston's R-rated comedy "We're the Millers" ($26.4 million) as the top-grossing film of the weekend. But the futuristic action film - director Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to his acclaimed 2009 sleeper "District 9" - cost an estimated $115 million to make.
In contrast, "Millers," which stars Miss Anniston as a stripper, was made for a relatively frugal $30 million (reflecting in part, one might suppose, the savings realized on the star's wardrobe costs).
Moreover, "Millers" gained momentum from Friday to Saturday, when its receipts rose 21 percent, while "Elysium" stalled, with a corresponding drop of 3 percent.
It gets worse. "Elysium's" No. 1 finish in total grosses for the weekend masked an anemic per-screen average of $9,257 for the film, which opened in 3,284 theaters. To put that in perspective: Of the 25 top-grossing films of the year to date, only four opened with lower per-screen averages. Even Tom Cruise's career-threatening post- apocalyptic bomb "Oblivion" opened with a higher average in U.S. theaters.
As if all that wasn't bad enough, consider: Among those 25 top- grossing films which, like "Elysium," cost more than $100 million to make, only one opened with a lower average take: Disney's resounding flop "The Lone Ranger."
Apparently fearful that critics highlighting the film's ideological agenda would scare off young male action film fans central to "Elysium's" hopes for success, the film's star and director have made some understandable, if scarcely credible, efforts at spin control.
"I don't think it is trying to say anything. It just presents the issue - the distinct difference between the haves and the have nots," Mr. Damon told Fox411. "A science fiction film will work if it is a whole new world, but speaks to the world that we live in, but not in a heavy-handed way. The first order of business for a big summer popcorn movie is to make a kick-ass movie with great action."
Mr. Blomkamp has been even more blunt in disavowing any didactic aims. "'Elysium' doesn't have a message," the 33-year-old director told Wired magazine.
Nobody's buying the disclaimers - neither the film's conservative critics, nor its jilted allies on the left.
Mr. Blomkamp's "flick is explicitly and pervasively political," observed Asawin Suebsaeng for Mother Jones. "It gets its two cents in on global poverty, immigration, access to health care, and social mobility, all the while affording Matt Damon plenty of room to maim and explode bad guys."
"Elysium's" distributor, Sony, is already reeling from the colossal failures of two other big-budget blockbusters this summer, "After Earth" and "White House Down." With the looming box office bust of "Elysium," the studio is left with little but flickering hopes for some timely foreign aid.
"International is going to be the big, big win on this film for us," said Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer, citing the drawing power of Mr. Damon and his co-star, Jodie Foster.
And perhaps in a world where Miss Foster is a global box office star and Greenpeace activists like to unwind by watching bad guys get maimed and exploded ... perhaps in that world "Elysium" will be the big, big international smash Sony needs.
But back here on planet Earth? If you believe that, you'll believe that "Elysium" isn't a message movie.
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