James Cameron captained the biggest box-office smash of all time, his Titanic having grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. But that was 12 years ago, long before the recession appeared on anyone's radar. Now, even Hollywood is feeling the pinch. Last Friday, hoping for another Titanic-size hit, 20th Century Fox took the unprecedented step of screening 16 minutes of Cameron's latest, the science-fiction epic Avatar, for those who scored free tickets on the Web. But will this odd strategy — luring sci-fi fans out of their basements once for a peak at what Fox hopes will be a longer, second engagement on December 18, the film's release date — make for smooth sailing?
"Avatar Day," which studio flacks hyperbolically described as a "global, history-making event," kicked off with the unveiling of the film's two-minute-long trailer (in both cinemas and on the Web) and culminated with evening showcases of the extended footage in IMAX 3-D theaters worldwide. History's not always kind, however. Within minutes of the trailer's online debut, frantic fanboy cries of "That's it?" were clogging message boards — quite an unexpected change from last month, when "King of the World" Cameron personally presented 24 minutes to an enthusiastic Comic-Con crowd in San Diego.
Locally, the college-aged viewers who filled the AMC/Loews Boston Common to capacity for the 12:01 am premiere of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds were unmoved by this two-minute peek. Appearing as it did immediately after a teaser for Christopher Nolan's Inception didn't help. While The Dark Knight (the second-largest domestic moneymaker behind Titanic) auteur's name alone elicits rapturous applause, the words "from the director of Titanic" do not appear to resonate with this coveted demographic. The Avatar clip, which begins with futuristic military action involving marines in mech suits battling on the distant moon of Pandora, contained a single line of dialogue delivered by the cartoonishly CGI, 10-foot-tall title character: "This is great!" Based on their stone-faced silence, the audience didn't seem to agree.
The problem is, while Cameron created much of the aesthetic of modern sci-fi, his "game-changing" work here lacks wonder (at least from what he's revealed) and, ironically, appears derivative of the very properties he's inspired, from Halo to District 9.
Later in the day, I saw the extended 16-minute preview at the Jordan's Furniture IMAX in Reading in 3-D, which seemed slightly off-register at times, a quality that actually added to the artificiality of the images. The Zach Snyder–ish slow-down/speed-up style that Cameron has adopted disappoints, as do the lackluster designs of the "Na'vi," the blue-skinned creatures that I presume will occupy much of the film's running time and romantic subplot.
Fox should have been preaching to the choir here, but the pittance of polite applause that concluded each "sold-out" screening (empty seats remained) wasn't what I'd call "history-making."
Iceberg . . . dead ahead?