The Martian” blasted off with a massive $55 million this weekend, nearly surpassing another space-based adventure, “Gravity,” as the highest-grossing October debut in history.

The Ridley Scott release was bolstered by rapturous reviews, with critics calling the picture among the director’s best and heaping praise on Matt Damon’s performance as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. It marks the second-best launch of Scott’s career, behind only “Hannibal’s” $58 million debut, and the second-best premiere for Damon, trailing “The Bourne Ultimatum’s” $69.3 million bow.

“It’s going to hold up really well,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “It’s got everything. It’s got suspense, action, heart and humor, and the ending is really satisfying. People will walk out of the theater and talk it up to their friends.”

Twentieth Century Fox backed the $108 million production and pushed the film out to 3,831 theaters. It was a blessed rollout. In addition to the strong notices, media reports about the possible discovery of water on Mars kept the distant planet front-and-center in people’s minds.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s domestic distribution chief. “The fact that there was the announcement on the same week as our film just excites people. Human beings are just interested in other worldly things right now.”

Going into the weekend, most analysts expected the film would do $45 million worth of business. Its numbers fall just short of “Gravity’s” $55.8 million debut, but there were a number of factors that prevented “The Martian” from toppling that picture in the record books. “Gravity” had the benefit of several Imax locations, which were being held exclusively for Sony’s “The Walk,” depriving “The Martian” of some healthy surcharges. It did get a nice boost in 3D screenings, which accounted for 46% of receipts, and premium large formats, which made up 11% of the total.

Overseas, the film is performing strongly, grossing $45.2 million from 49 markets, including such major territories as the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy and Mexico. Domestically, the film attracted an audience that was older and slightly more male. Fifty six percent of ticket-buyers were men while 72% of the opening weekend crowd was over the age of 25.

“Tremendous critical support with amazing audience reaction conspires for ultimate success,” said Aronson. “Having audience reaction be the same as critics is as rare as surviving on Mars.”

“The Walk” was overshadowed by “The Martian” in its limited release, with the biopic about high-wire artist Philippe Petit nabbing a disappointing $2 million over its first five days. The studio is trying to build buzz for the picture ahead of its wide release on Oct. 9, adhering to a strategy that Universal recently deployed with “Everest,” albeit with more modest results. “Everest” kicked off to $7 million in Imax and premium format theaters.

Sony executives said the film’s results were expected and framed the launch as important for generating enthusiasm for the picture and its dazzling 3D sequence documenting Petit’s wire walk between the Twin Towers. They were pleased that receipts climbed 80% between Friday and Saturday, which they believe signals word-of-mouth is strong.

“It’s a slower burn,” said Rory Bruer, head of worldwide distribution at Sony. “We’re in this for the long haul and we think not only is it going to perform, it’s going to have long legs at the box office.”

“Sicario,” a gritty drug war thriller, fared better. The Lionsgate release expanded from 59 theaters to 2,620 locations, earning a solid $12.1 million in the process and bringing its total to $15.1 million.

Among holdovers, last weekend’s champ, “Hotel Transylvania 2,” showed impressive stamina, falling a slender 32% to gross $33 million. The animated sequel has earned $90.5 million after two weeks and should cross the $100 million mark by next weekend.

In limited release, gay rights drama “Freeheld” grossed $40,000 from five locations in New York and Los Angeles, for a per-screen average of $8,000, while “He Named Me Malala,” Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about Nobel Peace Prize winner and education advocate Malala Yousafzai, grossed $56,000 in four theaters this opening weekend, representing a per-screen average of $14,000.

It was also a strong weekend for high art on the big screens as the Metropolitan Opera kicked off its tenth anniversary of showing live versions of its stage shows. Screenings of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” earned a mighty $2 million.