A chip off the ol' iceberg?

'Avatar' run-up recalls another Cameron-captained ship

James Cameron has raised the curtain a bit on "Avatar," his 3D journey into the future of filmmaking. The first public look at footage from his upcoming sci-fi adventure was decked out in the latest techno trappings: an online trailer, offered in HD, and 16 minutes of footage on 3D Imax screens. Inevitably, they were met by a chorus of tweets and Facebook status updates offering instant rushes to judgment.

Although Cameron is determined to be cutting-edge, the weekend chatter sounded like so much deja vu. New media might be edging out old media, but the conversation surrounding "Avatar" isn't all that different from the talk that preceded the director's "Titanic" 12 years ago.

Consider "Avatar" first. When the 2D trailer went online Thursday, demand was instantaneous: Fox reported that "Avatar" quickly became the most downloaded trailer at Apple.com, where it triggered a record 4 million streams its first day.

The fans immediately began weighing in. On Twitter, there were plenty of exclamations of "Amazing!"; there also were cries of "CG crap!" The first hundred or so instant pundits who compared the footage to such animated fantasies as "Delgo" and "FernGully" were sort of amusing; the next few thousand or so, not so much.

Because the Web commentariat specializes in snark, sites like Spout.com quickly threw up pages like "10 Movies 'Avatar' Unfortunately Resembles." The poor Na'vi, the blue-skinned, tribal-tattooed, 10-foot-tall natives of Cameron's imagined planet Pandora, drew invidious comparisons to Jar Jar Binks, the universally reviled CG comic relief in "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."

On Friday evening, moviegoers got a fuller picture when the 3D previews screened in 101 Imax theaters in North America and another 30 internationally. And the debate continued to rage.

Wriorprncs tweeted: "I saw the 'Avatar' preview too and I've seen Ferngully. Comparing them is like comparing a '99 Cabernet to a boxed white zin." Added Dougienesses: " 'Avatar' previews were amazing. Trailer does it no justice." Objected doloresm: "I saw the 'Avatar' trailer on the big screen today. THIS is what all the fuss is about? 'Final Fantasy' Movie 2.0?"

Social media might have empowered fans to inject themselves into the debate, but the run-up to "Avatar's" Dec. 18 debut is more than a little reminiscent of the establishment skepticism that preceded "Titanic."

Back then, movie sites like AintItCoolNews were in their infancy, and mainstream media was firmly in control of the discourse. It snickered that everyone already knew "Titanic's" ending. It became fixated on the $200 million-plus budget. It seized upon mishaps like a bout of food poisoning on the Nova Scotia set as evidence of production woes. Assessing the movie's commercial prospects, Entertainment Weekly sniffed, "No A-list boxoffice stars."

When in June 1997 the movie's release was postponed from July to December to complete effects work, the chorus of naysayers escalated. ("Avatar's" release also was postponed, but because that happened in December 2007, the production's length hasn't been an issue this time.)

"Cameron's fanatic attention to historic detail is threatening to turn into a disaster of its own," Newsweek ominously intoned then. "The delay will almost certainly hurt the movie's fortunes. At the end of a summer crowded with special-effects spectacles like 'The Lost World' and the $160 million 'Speed 2,' even 'Titanic' could seem a bit anticlimactic."

Cameron used a couple of strategic early screenings to begin to turn around perceptions. Reported EW, "While it's hard to imagine that 'Titanic' won't arrive a bit tired, a July test screening at Minnesota's Mall of America finally brought some good news -- a chorus of bravos from amateur critics who proclaimed Cameron's epic 'fantastic,' praised its 'serious suspense' and called the sinking of the ship a 'jaw dropper.' "

Needless to say, almost everyone under¬estimated "Titanic's" ultimate appeal.

"Avatar" isn't likely to play out like another "Titanic," which remains a nearly unassailable, sui generis hit. But the new media would be just as foolish now as the old media was then if it tries to predict "Avatar's" boxoffice based on the unveiled footage. The big question -- one the tech talk misses -- is whether the new movie delivers emotionally. No one will know until the completed film is seen.

"The film speaks for itself," Cameron has said. "People have heard the hype, the counterhype and the counter-counterhype. I think they'll go see it for themselves."

That was in '97, and he was talking about "Titanic." He could just as easily recycle that sentiment to apply to "Avatar."