Arnold's back -- and No. 1 -- at the box office. ''Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines'' trounces the ''Legally Blonde'' sequel, and becomes Schwarzenegger's biggest debut ever

By Dave Karger
July 04, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Arnold Schwarzenegger said he’d be back, and he meant it. ”Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” stormed into multiplexes this holiday weekend, earning $44 million over the three-day period and a strong $72.5 million over the long weekend, according to studio estimates. The high figure makes ”T3” the second-highest R-rated debut ever, behind ”The Matrix Reloaded,” which opened in May with $91.8 million.

It also marks the best ever opening weekend for Schwarzenegger. In fact, ”T3” grossed more in its first weekend than his last three movies (”Collateral Damage,” ”End of Days,” and ”The 6th Day”) made in their entire runs. ”T3” wasn’t able, however, to top the Fourth of July weekend records of ”Men in Black II” ($87.2 over five days) or ”Independence Day” ($96.1 million over five and a half days). Why? To start with, the film’s R rating certainly limited its audience a bit. Perhaps moviegoers felt that after ”X2: X-Men United,” ”The Matrix Reloaded,” ”2 Fast 2 Furious,” and ”Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” this summer has had a few sequels too many. And many fans who don’t feel that way probably weren’t too pumped by the idea of watching a 55-year-old future California gubernatorial candidate in an action role. (How ageist we Americans are!)

The week’s other new sequel, ”Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde,” premiered in a distant second place with $22.9 million over three days and $39.2 million over five. That tops the $20.6 million opening of the first ”Legally Blonde,” as well as the $35.6 debut of Reese Witherspoon’s last film, ”Sweet Home Alabama” (though, of course, ”Alabama” made that sum in only three days). Negative reviews certainly hurt this sequel a bit, as most critics felt ”Blonde 2” was nothing more than a rehash of the first installment.

Third place also went to a sequel, ”Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” which plummeted 62 percent from its opening to $14.2 million over the three-day portion of the weekend. That brings its 10-day total to $67.2 million and indicates that ”Full Throttle” will have a very difficult time matching the $125.3 gross of the first ”Charlie’s Angels” in 2000.

”Finding Nemo,” meanwhile, continued its amazing run with another $11 million, down only 21 percent from last weekend. With $274.9 million so far, the Disney/Pixar smash has now surpassed ”The Matrix Reloaded” as the No. 1 film of the year and has also become the No. 2 animated film of all time, behind only ”The Lion King,” which grossed $312.9 million in its initial release. If ”Nemo” keeps this pace, it could very well unseat the ”King.”

Fifth place went to ”The Hulk,” which fell another 56 percent to $8.2 million in its third weekend, bringing its total to a lower-than-expected $117 million. But at least it fared better than DreamWorks’ new animated film, ”Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,” which bellyflopped with $6.8 million over the three-day weekend and $10 million over five days. That ”Finding Nemo” in its sixth weekend beat the opening of ”Sinbad” is nothing short of embarrassing and proves yet again that when it comes to cartoons these days, computer-generated animation is where it’s at. Even with its star-studded voice cast (featuring Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Michelle Pfeiffer), ”Sinbad” couldn’t draw a crowd, indicating that audiences favor animated fish, ogres, and other critters to cartoon people.