Box Office: Alice Turns Damon a Sickly Green

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Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland

In Team America: World Police, the first Hollywood-financed movie inspired by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its attendant political controversy, South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone dispatched a squad of U.S. guerrillas — all in marionette form — to take down an Axis of Evil dictator and, in the process, slaughter the real villains of the piece: a bunch of self-important celebrities who had publicly opposed the U.S. policy. One of these stars is Matt Damon, who is portrayed as such an idiot that all his dialogue consists of is his grinning stupidly while saying, "Matt Damon!" The puppet Damon ends up dead, his head snapped by a Team America hero.

The real Matt Damon didn't fare much better as the star of the new Green Zone: he went looking for the truth about Iraq's WMDs, and got blown up by the IED of public indifference. The box-office curse of movies about the U.S. Mess-o-potamian escapade remained unbroken, as Damon became the latest star — after George Clooney, Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, not to mention the South Park guys — whose attempt to address the blood and blunders in our Mideast wars tanked with the mass audience.

Green Zone, reteaming Damon with Paul Greengrass, his director in the last two, very popular Jason Bourne films, earned just $14.5 million in its first three days at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. That's way below industry predictions (in the low- to middle-$20 millions) and less than a quarter of the $62 million amassed this weekend by the defending champ, Alice in Wonderland, which has leapt like a White Rabbit past the $200 million mark in just 10 days. The Tim Burton–Johnny Depp effort is also a war movie, at least partly, but with the Red Queen and the White Queen, not Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush, as the executive adversaries.

Green Zone was one of a quartet of new movies this weekend whose grosses fell into the modest-to-awful range. She's Out of Your League, a no-star, R-rated comedy about a schlub who unaccountably attracts the interest of a hottie, secured third place with $9.6 million. Just behind that, at $8.3 million, was the love story Remember Me, starring vampire swoon king Robert Pattinson; not nearly enough Twilight fans booked tickets on the young male dreamboat. The interracial Our Family Wedding, with America Ferrara and Forest Whitaker, earned $7.6 million to finish sixth (after the holdover Shutter Island). So the four brand-new movies took in only about $40 million. It's the first weekend since the chill of pre-Avatar December when only two movies made more than $10 million.

In Green Zone, Damon plays a U.S. warrant officer who, just after the Iraq invasion, discovers that Saddam in fact had no weapons of mass destruction and fights to expose the dirty secret. No less than Inglourious Basterds, starring Damon's Ocean's Eleven buddy Brad Pitt, the film is a revisionist political fantasy disguised as gritty war reality. And given moviegoers' resistance to Iraq themes, Green Zone's trailers tried skirting the I word by making the picture seem like another Bourne adventure in all but name. There was no more hint of America's fatal foreign policy frustrations in Iraq than there was of homosexuality in the trailers for A Single Man. But somehow, just possibly through the Internet, people know. Both films couldn't escape their true identity, and suffered — not for their sins but for their boldness.

Universal, the studio that produced Green Zone, had smelled something bad for more than a year. Greengrass and Damon shot their picture during the last few months of the Bush Administration. Then, writes Anne Thompson on her IndieWire blog, the studio's co-chairmen, Marc Shmuger and David Linde, "pushed back the Green Zone postproduction and release to allow Greengrass to find the film — and an ending — in the editing room." The movie's budget was at least $130 million, plus another $100 million or so to bring to market, and is unlikely to return even half that sum to Universal. The Green Zone shadow, plus the failures of a bunch of other Universal movies (Land of the Lost, Bruno, Funny People, Duplicity, State of Play, etc.), cost Shmuger and Linde their jobs in October. Their legacy projects — this and the expensive disappointment The Wolfman — are still costing Universal.

"It's a bit of a disappointment," Nikki Rocco, the studio's president of distribution, said of Green Zone. Actually, it's a bit of a disaster. It's a smidge of financial calamity. It's a flop of Universal proportions. With a grudging B-rating from CinemaScore's polling of moviegoers who'd seen the film, Green Zone could join Syriana, The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and the Oscar-triumphant The Hurt Locker in the box-office body count of Mideast war movies. Indeed, the film's opening-weekend tally was almost exactly the same (factoring in inflation) as Team America: World Police.

The real Damon will survive Green Zone. And those critics (like this one) who gave it a favorable review think he should be proud of a movie that provokes political discussion among viewers even as it amps up their adrenaline rush. But his and Greengrass's flop makes this potentially valuable genre even more endangered. They fought the war, and the war won.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Alice in Wonderland, $62 million; $208.6 million, second week
2. Green Zone, $14.5 million, first weekend
3. She's Out of My League, $9.6 million, first weekend
4. Remember Me, $8.3 million, first weekend
5. Shutter Island, $8.1 million; $108 million, fourth week
6. Our Family Wedding, $7.6 million, first weekend
7. Avatar, $6.6 million; $730.3 million, 13th week
8. Brooklyn's Finest, $4.3 million; $21.4 million, second week
9. Cop Out, $4.2 million; $39.4 million, third week
10. The Crazies, $3.7 million; $33.3 million, third week