The curious carpings of Mr. Beaks, Devin Faraci and others aside, Avatar is here and surging upward with fairly big numbers for the weekend (over $70 million) and everyone now realizing that the Best Picture race is down to Avatar vs. Up In The Air vs. The Hurt Locker. Cameron’s story is familiar, but it works. It lays out the elements, marshalls its forces, turns up the heat and pays off big-time in the fourth act.

I was among paying customers yesterday at the AMC 34th and I could feel the film kicking in and holding on, and now the word is flash-flooding as we speak, even among the Eloi, whose reputation rests on their inability to read or sense coolness in any movie that doesn’t have a blatant, dumb-ass, cultural-junk-food hook until very late in the game.

But what people are telling their friends and families and co-workers is that it’s not the CGI and the 3-D sizzle alone — it’s the all of Avatar that makes it play like it’s ten feet tall.

But the “all” couldn’t be sold or even generally described or hinted at, for whatever reason, and so Fox marketing was allowed to only sell the sizzle, and the word-of-mouth that came out of this began to sour in late August and spiralled downward. Face facts and admit what an all-but-total failure the Avatar marketing effort was over the last five months since the ComicCon debut in mid July.

The 7.23 ComicCon footage screening, in fact, was the only unmitigated positive-sell moment in the entire campaign.

The appearance of the first Avatar trailer on 8.20 was the absolute nadir — the wound that never quite healed over the next four months until the finished film began to be seen. This was followed by the Avatar Delgo Ferngully comparisons — more crap in the fan. Then came the good-but-not-great reaction to Avatar Day in theatres, followed by the appearance of Hitler Avatar on YouTube. What a month! By Labor Day the Avatar word-of-mouth campaign was wobbly and against the ropes.

It all kind of simmered in the pan throughout the fall, clucking and crackling like fried eggs but never really changing the downbeat August assessments. The “don’t like them blue people” meme seemed to build and build. And then came the final embarassment before screenings started — i.e., that awful one-sheet with a Na’vi face that clearly didn’t belong to Sam Worthington or Zoe Saldana and which reminded me and others of Thriller-era Michael Jackson, for God’s sake.

And then Avatar was screened on 12.10 and everything turned around like that. But before this happened Fox marketing had everyone and his uncle convinced (myself included) that Avatar was some kind of problem movie, or at the very least a so-so or underwhelming thing.