NEW YORK -- Opening just days after NASA announced findings showing water on Mars, "The Martian" soaked up moviegoers at the box office.
Ridley Scott's 3-D space epic touched down in theaters with a robust $55 million over the weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. The results again proved moviegoers' abiding thirst for space adventures, particularly ones that rely more on mathematics than monsters.
The 20th Century Fox release, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut left for dead on Mars, exceeded expectations to nearly rank as the top October debut ever. The estimated North American opening of "The Martian" surpassed that of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" ($47.5 million) and virtually equaled the debut of Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" ($55.8 million).
It's Scott's second best opening behind 2001's "Hannibal" and Damon's second best after 2007's "Bourne Ultimatum."
Made for $108 million, "The Martian" received a publicity boost earlier in the week when NASA announced it had found evidence of water on the surface of Mars - a cosmically fortuitous tie-in for a movie that celebrates NASA ingenuity. Adapted from the Andy Weir novel, "The Martian" - more "science-fact" than science fiction - relishes pragmatic scientific problem solving and NASA's spirit of exploration.
"What separates this movie - it has the backdrop of science - but all of the science is presented in a way that's very approachable for all," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for Fox.
Aronson noted that the shift in release date from Nov. 25 to early October gave the film a more open path at the box office, where it could play well through the month. The film added $45.2 million internationally.
"Solid performances by recent space-related films like 'Interstellar' and 'Gravity' show that 'geeking-out' on all things outer space and science related in the movie theater is not only a popular pastime, but has now made science actually 'cool,'" said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office firm Rentrak.
Yet October is proving especially busy with well-reviewed studio releases seeking broad audiences. Another acclaimed 3-D spectacle, Sony's "The Walk," took a back seat to "The Martian." Ahead of a wider opening next week, Robert Zemeckis' dramatization of Philippe Petit's World Trade Center stunt took in just $1.6 million on 448 Imax screens.
"You need word of mouth for this type of film and that's what this weekend was all about," said Sony distribution head Rory Bruer, who granted it's a "crowded field." The film will look to parlay strong reviews out of its New York Film Festival debut and buzz from its vertigo-inducing 3-D next week.
Last week's box-office champ, "Hotel Transylvania 2," slid to second with an estimated $33 million. Sony's animated sequel has made $90.5 million in two weeks.
Denis Villeneuve's drug war thriller "Sicario," starring Emily Blunt, shot up to third with $12.1 million for the acclaimed Lionsgate release.
The gay-rights drama "Freeheld," starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, opened in limited release with a $40,000-per-screen average in New York and Los Angeles.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Rentrak. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday:
1."The Martian," $55 million ($45.2 million international).
2."Hotel Transylvania 2," $33 million ($20.4 million international).
3."Sicario," $12.1 million ($3.3 million international).
4."The Intern," $11.6 million ($15.7 million international).
5."Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," $7.7 million ($13.7 million international).
6."Black Mass," $5.9 million.
7."Everest," $5.5 million ($16.4 million international).
8."The Visit," $3.9 million ($3.3 million international).
9."War Room," $2.8 million.
10."The Perfect Guy," $2.4 million.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada), according to Rentrak:
1. "The Martian," $45.2 million.
2. "Lost in Hong Kong," $41 million.
3. "Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe," $34 million.
4. "Goodbye Mr. Loser," $26 million.
5. "Hotel Transylvania 2," $20.4 million.
6. "Everest," $16.4 million.
7. "The Intern," $15.7 million.
8. "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials," $13.7 million.
9. "Inside Out," $12.6 million.
10. "Saving Mr. Wu," $7 million.
Science sells: 'The Martian' lands with $55 million debut