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Despite the reviews, ''Mission to Mars'' tops the box office

But, like Madonna’s latest movie, it may lose audiences quickly

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Even though ”Mission to Mars” was attacked mercilessly by the critics, it looked like a blockbuster and that seemed to be enough to attract audiences that hadn’t seen one since Christmas time. ”Mars” handily took the top spot this weekend, with $23.1 million, the third-highest March debut ever. ”The reviews were not favorable,” Buena Vista Pictures distribution president Chuck Viane told Reuters, ”but the public saw something in this movie and voted with their pocketbooks.”

The public also saw something in ”The Ninth Gate” that scoffing critics didn’t, giving it a second-place finish, with $6.7 million. (Rounding out the top 5 were ”My Dog Skip” with $6 million, ”The Whole Nine Yards” — finally dropping out of first in its fourth week — with $5.4 million, and ”American Beauty” with $3.7 million.)

Experience shows, however, that a big first week doesn’t a long-term success make. Dedicated Madonna fans helped ”The Next Best Thing” debut in second place last weekend with $5.9 million, but this weekend people seemed to catch on that it was the cinematic equivalent to a kick in the stomach: It dropped 42 percent to number eight, pulling in only $3.4 million. So ”Mars” may be dropping out of orbit… fast.

CRITICAL MASS EW readers who voted in our online Critical Mass movie poll might well be among those who will be spreading the bad word on ”Mission to Mars.” The movie received a C, with 57 percent saying it was worse than they expected, and 41 percent saying they will definitely not recommend it to others. But that reaction seemed like a People’s Choice Award compared with the feedback to ”Ninth Gate,” which averaged a D+, with 62 percent saying it was worse than what they expected. Just like March, these movies came in like a lion, but who knows if they’ll even be around at the end of the month to go out like a lamb?

To vote on these and other current movies, visit our online Critical Mass Movie Poll.