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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - So what if "Inception" is incomprehensible?
The costly sci-fi thriller opened at No. 1 at the weekend box office in North America on Sunday, pulling in $60.4 million from moviegoers happy to be vexed by one of the few big original pictures of the summer, according to estimates issued by distributor Warner Bros. Pictures.
The weekend's other big new release failed to whip up any magic amid poor reviews. Nicolas Cage's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" bombed at No. 3 with just $17.4 million in weekend ticket sales.
Last weekend's champion, the family cartoon "Despicable Me," slipped to No. 2 with $32.7 million.
"Inception," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who steals secrets from deep within people's subconscious, was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the English filmmaker responsible for the last two "Batman" movies. It set a new personal best for DiCaprio, surpassing the $41 million start for "Shutter Island" in February.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc., partnered on the $160 million project with studio-based financier Legendary Pictures, and they spent more than $100 million on the marketing. Pundits had forecast an opening in the $50 million to $60 million range.
The film also earned $15.6 million from seven foreign markets, led by a first-place, $8.6 million opening in Britain. The film adds 29 countries next weekend.
Critics heaped praise on "Inception," even if many of them were not exactly sure what it was about, or advised that it might require multiple viewings.
In a caustic review, the Wall Street Journal suggested the film was "impervious to criticism, simply because no one short of a NASA systems analyst will be able to articulate the plot."
Nolan, who turns 40 later this month, came up with the idea of "Inception" a decade ago, citing a fascination with the relationship of people's waking and dreaming lives.
Warner Bros. said the movie played strongest with those aged 18 to 34, with exit polling data "above the norms." Men accounted for 56 percent of the audience, and the movie did better in the major cities.
"It's a smart film, and if you're a smart person you've got to put on your seat belt and enjoy the ride," said Dan Fellman, the studio's president of domestic distribution.
He predicted the film would hit $300 million in sales in North America. The biggest release of the year so far is "Toy Story 3" with $363 million.
That film leads a long list of recent releases that are either sequels, remakes or adaptations, such as "Alice in Wonderland," "Iron Man 2," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," "Shrek Forever After" and "The Karate Kid."
While all-time box office behemoth "Avatar" showed that audiences will flock to original concepts, the Hollywood studios increasingly prefer to greenlight big-budget movies based on videogames, novels, comic books and earlier films.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice," a live-action fantasy inspired by a sequence in Walt Disney Co's 1940 classic "Fantasia," marks a big disappointment for the studio, which spent $150 million making it.
After getting a two-day head start by opening on Wednesday, the film has earned $24.5 million to date. Pundits had forecast a $30 million haul for the first five days.
"There's no question we're disappointed in the result," said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic theatrical distribution.
The film also earned a modest $8.3 million from 13 foreign markets, led by a No. 1 debut in Russia with $4.8 million.
"Despicable Me" has earned $118.4 million in North America after 10 days, said distributor Universal Pictures, a unit of General Electric Co.. Its foreign total rose to $11.3 million from seven markets; Russia has contributed $7.2 million to sales in 11 days.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Paul Simao