3-D space epic "Gravity" delivered a bigger-than-expected $55.5 million at an otherwise dismal weekend box office. Only one other film grossed more than $8 million, holdover "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" ($21.5 million). After the recent ballyhoo over AMC's "Breaking Bad" finale, "Gravity" reminds that the public will respond to unanimous praise for a ground-breaking cinematic event.

But two films do not a good weekend make. The total for the top 10 is around $110 million, down from $127 million last year, the second weekend in a row with a large drop. Not much is luring younger audiences, who are the year-round mainstay for the business. They should return with "Carrie" in a couple weeks and "Hunger Games" sequel "Catching Fire" next month. This decline in total numbers is a concern for both studios and exhibitors.

1. Gravity (Warner Bros.) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: A-; Metacritic: 96

$55,550,000 in 3,575 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $15,538; Cumulative: $55,550,000

The key statistic here isn't the claims of October records or best openings for Bullock and Clooney (only true if one doesn't adjust for inflation or the heavy 3-D and IMAX surcharges). What's really impressive is the big increase in gross from Friday to Saturday, much above normal for a non-family film, which means great word of mouth and future must-see status.

Alfonso Cuaron's $110 million space drama, which earned the best reviews by far of any 2013 release, per Metacritic, grossed $16.1 million on Friday (Thursday night's late show added another $1.4 million), with Saturday jumping to over $23 million, much higher than anticipated (as was the full weekend overall). 

More than "Gravity"'s decent but not spectacular A- Cinemascore (the same rating as "Prisoners"), this uptick means that this is already a big impact film, with high awareness and now major audience positive reaction likely propelling it to substantial further success. The audience breakdown was slightly more male than female, but it also skewed to an older audience, which reflects the strong reviews but defies the normal genre response. The studio will chase the untapped younger audience still out there that could be convinced to see this. That brings the real potential of a far bigger total gross.

The context for this figure is split between normal high-end October releases and review-oriented awards contenders. The same weekend last year, "Taken 2" grossed around $50 million but with no 3-D surcharges, meaning more total tickets were sold for that film. But compared to October films that ended up as major Oscar contenders, say "Argo," "The Social Network," or "The Departed," the last of which performed best at $27 million for the weekend -- this is in a commercial league of its own, and clearly sets the pace for upcoming contenders (which are unlikely to do the same level of business).

Also significant, and perhaps a reversal of recent trends for 3-D and IMAX, which have fallen a bit, 80% of the gross (slightly less of the total attendees) comes from 3-D and IMAX theaters, all of which should help in the long term. It means not only that people wanted to see the film, but they were willing to pay more to see it in optimum conditions (per many reviewers' suggestion).

This isn't Cuaron's top opener - that would be "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." But the gross already tops the lifetime gross of any of his other films ("Children of Men" only got to $35 million domestic). Producer David Heyman, who oversaw all the "Harry Potter" films, is more used to this sort of success (Will Smith-starring "I Am Legend" opened to $77 million at Christmas 2007). This is a triumph for all involved.

What comes next: The second weekend will be just as strong an indicator for what comes, but "Gravity" has already planted its flag as one of the potentially biggest fall releases ever and as a significant awards contender ahead.