After grossing $70 million in its third weekend, James Cameron's Avatar is swiftly approaching cultural phenomenon territory. With the possible exception of The Dark Knight, there hasn't been a movie juggernaut like this since, well, James Cameron's Titanic in 1997. But Avatar lacks some ingredients that helped Titanic define the Zeitgeist.
For sure, there are similarities between the two Cameron epics. Both revolve around paper-thin romances overwhelmed by stunning visual set pieces. Both are cautionary tales about technological and capitalist hubris despite being the most technologically advanced and expensive movies ever made at the time of their release dates. And both defy the conventional wisdom that the fear of sore asses drives audiences away from three hour movies.
So, what's missing?
1) Celine Dion: If only iPods had been around in 1997, "My Heart Will Go On" might have been the biggest finger-on-the-volume-wheel song of all time. Dion's saccharine power ballad made Titanic's soundtrack almost as big a blockbuster as the film. The album spent a ludicrous 16 weeks atop the Billboard charts on its way to selling 11 million copies, a practically unimaginable sum today. Hell, it even threatened to bring Celtic chanting into the mainstream. As for the song, it was played at weddings and funerals throughout 2008 and won that year's Oscar for Best Original Song, despite Cameron's initial objection to it being too commercial (which coming from him is saying something). It also led to Dion's current run as Queen Lounge Lizard of the Vegas Strip.
2) "I'll never let go.": Let's be honest, both screenplays probably had Paddy Chayefsky spinning in his grave. Critics and snobs love to mock Cameron's tin-ear for dialogue. But Titanic had at least one line that entered the lexicon, even if mostly for parody. As much as I enjoyed Avatar, I can't really recall a single quote other than the (unfortunately) recurring "I see you." Let's just say Cameron is lucky that 3-D glasses obscure cringes.
3) Leonardo DiCaprio: I'm sure Sam Worthington is a perfectly nice guy. He's a decent actor (hell, Esquire even said he was the best of his generation). And few would kick him out of bed for eating chips. But Leo had a power over teen girls in 1997 that would put the likes of Robert Pattinson in a league with Jon Lovitz. DiCaprio was plastered not only all over the walls of pubescent girls' bedrooms, but also all over the tabloids, just as celebrity worship replaced baseball as our national pastime. Remember the "pussy posse"? Remember Moomba???
4) Repeat viewings: Thanks in part to Leonardo, Americans of all ages and genders fought for bragging rights over who had sat through the 3.5 hour Titanic the most times. I'm ashamed to admit I topped out at 4 or 5, but knew plenty of people who soared into the double digits. Avatar is minting money, but some of its success can be attributed to the inflated 3-D and Imax 3-D ticket prices. And while those formats make for a thrilling experience, they also come with handicaps that might hinder repeat viewings: those price premiums and limited availability relative to plain old 2-D screens. Then again, it's too early to call it on this one and some of the hardcore fanboys might see the movie in all of its formats just to compare notes.
5) Kate Winslet's breasts: Without them, far fewer young guys would have 'fessed up to seeing Titanic. A Blue, digital Worthington avatar probably won't cut it with the randy ladies.
Avatar proves that some movies demand a communal big screen experience. But its biggest problem is that in the age of personalized Twitter streams and niche YouTube channels, the Zeitgeist might no longer exist.
(Main photo courtesy of Telegraph.co.uk)