After three weeks of dominating both the news and the box office, The Passion of the Christ is set to step aside from the number one spot this weekend. It's hard to imagine a film more different than the one that's going to knock it off the top spot, though they are both rated R for violence. It's shaping up to be a fantastic weekend for all audiences, with several great choices.
We're in a zombie renaissance these days; after stepping aside for a few years for the slasher revival, the Army of the Undead is making a comeback (to the big screen) in a big way. Starting more or less with 2002's Resident Evil (viewed as a bit of a flop but still a film that did enough to warrant a sequel), and moving forward through last year's 28 Days Later, we have all the makings of a trend (there's also the execrable House of the Dead but they can't all be winners). Dawn of the Dead looks to be easily the biggest of these so far. While horror purists have every right to be as wary of this film as the Psycho remake, there's a lot to like going into this one. Both the teaser and trailers were bonafide works of art, setting a mood of terror better than few other previews in recent memory. The zombies are faster and angrier than ever before (taking a cue from 28 Days Later) making it a much more difficult battle to fight. The cast is talented as well, featuring Ving Rhames, Mekhi Phifer and art-house goddess Sarah Polley. It's also big-budgeted and not some throwaway back lot project.
This is not to say that there aren't reasons to be cautious about this one. The director, Zack Snyder, is a total rookie. The screenwriter, James Gunn, is responsible for the script of Scooby-Doo (though he's also a fave writer of splatter-house Troma and the idea of a Scooby-Doo movie is stupid in and of itself. Not his fault). What is unusual, though, is that this edition of Dawn is getting very good reviews, praising it as an effective update of the classic. Universal took a step that is proving to be more and more common in releasing the first ten minutes of the film to its sister network USA this week, hoping to drum up excitement. It's a fantastic opening and should do the job. The movie has kept the shopping mall setting but is less interested in the social satire of the original and more into apocalyptic zombie mayhem, not that this decision is necessarily a bad thing. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake opened to $28 million on a similar level of promotion and I think that Dawn of the Dead can approach this figure, if not surpass it. I predict $23-24 million for opening weekend, with more upwards potential than down. This figure will likely spawn more zombie films and perhaps more Romero remakes. Anything that gets the British zomromcom Shaun of the Dead over here faster is fine by me.
The real critic's darling of the weekend is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the latest Jim Carrey film, but which might more easily be explained as the latest Charlie Kaufman film. Kaufman has made his name very rapidly as the guy who simply doesn't have it in him to write a "normal" script. In all his films, from his debut, Being John Malkovich, to 2002's Adaptation, Kaufman tackles great eternal questions through a cockeyed lens. With Eternal Sunshine, he's going after love and longing from a sci-fi premise worthy of Asimov or Heinlein. Carrey stars as a depressed man who goes to a company that claims it can remove troublesome memories -- specifically in this case, a failed romance with a woman named Clementine (that character name just makes me smile) played by Kate Winslet. The trouble is, not everything about that relationship was worth forgetting, and during the process, Carrey's character finds he regrets going this far. The movie then becomes a battle inside his brain to save these memories.
I'm not even going to pretend I don't have a bias on this one; I'm about as psyched as a person can get, as the whacked-out premise throws right into my viewing wheelhouse. That it looks like Carrey's going for a semi-restrained performance makes it all the more attractive to me, even if audiences continue to not be able to buy him in a serious role of any kind. Prejudices die hard, I suppose. Critical reception so far has been just short of rapturous but being a critical darling may not help the film as much as it could at the box office. It's definitely an 'out-there' plot that's not going to make it easy for mass-audiences to grasp.
However, it does have one Jim Carrey, who continues to ping pong between zany comedy and existentialist drama and is fresh from an $80 million opening. In fact, it's difficult to argue that being granted God's powers is all that stranger than erasing parts of your memories, but it all seems more palatable when presented with boob jokes, apparently, of which Eternal Sunshine has none. An unwieldy (yet poetic) title doesn't help either. Eternal Sunshine is being given a selected release, opening in just over 1,300 venues. It's probably going to struggle initially and a lot will depend on how well it’s received by everyday moviegoers. I like it for a $6 million weekend, though that could be wishful thinking.
The third of the new releases this weekend is Taking Lives, a cat-and-mouse serial killer thriller. Featuring Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland and Olivier Martinez, Lives takes the idea of a killer that absorbs the lives of the people he murders to evade detection. Jolie plays the profiler, Martinez a local cop and Hawke the potential bait. It's got the possibility to be a gripping story, but apparently that was discarded as too simple a route to take. Taking a general thumping for being ludicrous, Taking Lives doesn't seem likely to fool too many, except for diehard Jolie fans (who there can't be too many of, judging by Beyond Borders). It looks actually not half a world away from the recent Twisted with Judd and Jolie being sadly interchangeable of late. I don't expect much here, so give it about $11 million since thrillers have a decent baseline audience, but this number may even be generous.
Though The Passion of the Christ will probably fall to the two spot this weekend, it's not giving up the ghost that easy, with a good chance it'll earn $20 million for its fourth straight week. It'll pass a crucial record this weekend, blowing past The Matrix Reloaded as the highest grossing R-rated film ever, a title that film holds at $281 million. There's a very slight chance that it could pass the $300 million mark by the end of the weekend, though that will more than likely have to wait until mid-week. Depending on which day it does so, it will either be the third or fourth fastest film to do so, sticking it behind Spider-Man and The Return of the King, and possibly The Phantom Menace. It's safer to speculate on the final box office total now, which is almost assuredly above $350 million. A lot will depend on what kind of Easter rebound it sees, but $400 million is also in the cards, though not a sure thing.
Last week's number two film, Secret Window, is probably not going to fare too well in these coming weeks; despite a very good start at about $18 million and being a well-crafted thriller with a twist ending, it's not an ending that left audiences happy. Depp's place as a box office star again is relatively secure, especially since he's quite good in the film, but his next breakout box office performance is going to have to wait for another time. This should fall to about $10.5 million in frame number two.
Seventies throwback Starsky & Hutch is going to put itself well in the black after its run is complete, earning over $50 million in just two weeks. It took a relatively steep fall in its second weekend but nothing fatal. It looks to follow the pattern of Along Came Polly almost identically, which is currently petering out at just under $90 million.
Forecast: Weekend of March 19-21, 2004
Changes in Sites
||Dawn of the Dead
||The Passion of the Christ
||Starsky & Hutch
||Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
||Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London
||50 First Dates
||The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King