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The cyborgs of Alita: Battle Angel vanquish rivals at the box office

New York

HOW do you judge the performance of a very expensive cyborg? On one hand, Fox's Alita: Battle Angel, an effects-laden, dystopian, sci-fi action movie with a bionic heroine, easily topped the North American box office over the weekend.

It exceeded most analysts' expectations by bringing in about US$27.8 million in the lead-up to the Presidents Day on Monday.

On the other hand, that amount is modest next to the roughly US$170 million it took to make the movie, produced in part by James Cameron and based on a manga series by Yukito Kishiro. A digitally augmented Rosa Salazar leads a cast that also includes Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali.

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While it was Robert Rodriguez - best known for the Sin City and the Spy Kids movies - who directed the film, Cameron's name has been used heavily in the movie's marketing, echoing the way Peter Jackson's was employed to push another expensive sci-fi movie, Mortal Engines, in December last year. (Jackson was a writer and producer of that film, but it was directed by Christian Rivers.)

Mortal Engines was one of the biggest flops of 2018, opening to about US$7.5 million domestically against a budget of around US$100 million.

Fox had initially planned to release Alita: Battle Angel in December, when it would have gone up against a tangle of holiday crowd-pleasers. The studio's decision to push the release to February seems to have helped Cameron to avoid, at least, a Mortal Engines-like disaster.

Second place at the box office was Warner Bros' The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

This sequel about toy-brick people, voiced by Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks, brought in about US$21.2 million during its second weekend in theatres according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. (If there's a lesson to take from the top two movies, it's that audiences gravitate toward the not-quite-human.)

Warner Bros also took third place with Isn't it Romantic, a comedy that opened about US$14.2 million in ticket sales over the weekend. The movie, both a romantic comedy and a commentary on romantic comedies, stars Rebel Wilson and Liam Hemsworth.

Meta commentary is also at play in the other newcomer to crack the top five, Universal's Happy Death Day 2U, which made around US$9.8 million in its first weekend, landing in fifth place.

It is a self-parodying sequel to the 2017 slasher Happy Death Day. Overall, this weekend failed to invigorate what has so far been a lacklustre year at the box office.

That Presidents Day weekend of last year saw the release of the record-shattering Black Panther only adds urgency to the question of when things will start to pick up. NYTIMES