Avatar Weekend Five: Cameron Burns Eli

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20th Century Fox / WETA / Reuters

Actors Sam Worthington, left, and Zoe Saldana as Jake and Neytiri in Avatar

In the beginning, Dec. 18, the Lord God Cameron created the heaven of Pandora and the movie of Avatar. And He saw that it was good, and other people thought so too, since it quickly sold $1.6 billion worth of tickets worldwide. And then, on the 29th day, Eli, a man of another God — the God — bestrode the multiplexes to raise holy Hell and challenge the Kingdom of Avatar. And, lo, he did tempt of the children of Cameron; so many of them ate the leaves of The Book of Eli that it was No.1 at the Friday domestic box office. But, yea unto thee, Avatar stormed back to win the weekend. And with order restored to the heaven and the earth, the Lord God Cameron might have rested. Instead, he donned his garments for the Golden Globes awards show Sunday night.

James Cameron's enviro-sci-fi epic is such a blockbuster, a world-beater, a galaxy dominator, that other movies feel they've won the Super Bowl if they can earn more than Avatar on their opening day. That's happened just three times in the month it's been in theaters: on Dec. 23 with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel; on Christmas day with Sherlock Holmes; and this past Friday. The Book of Eli, a postapocalyptic Western about a martial artist whose greatest artillery is his copy of the Bible, took in $11.7 million that day, beating the Pandorans' $10.4 million. Avatar then stormed back to take the Saturday crown, $17.2 million to $11.8 million, and, according to studio estimates, will easily win the first three days of the Martin Luther King. Jr., holiday weekend, $41.3 million to $31.6 million. Final numbers for the full four-day frame will be available Tuesday.

There was no shame in the runner-up slot for Eli's directors, the twins Albert and Allen Hughes, or for the star, Denzel Washington, who in his first real action role enjoyed the second highest opening weekend of his career, after the 2007 American Gangster. Peter Jackson's dreamlike horror drama The Lovely Bones, about the afterlife of a murdered girl, ended five weeks of very limited playdates and earned $17.1 million in three days of wide release. Analysts credited the decent showing for this odd, no-star drama to a marketing campaign aimed at teen girls. (Think of New Moon but, instead of a dishy vampire, a girl finds Norman Bates.) The other new movie, The Spy Next Door, had Jackie Chan playing a secret agent babysitting three little brats. The PG action comedy was kid-friendly but audience-repellent: it earned a puny $9.7 million in its first three days.

Of last weekend's new offerings, the dystopian vampire drama Daybreakers and the Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt lost way more than half their original grosses to pratfall out of the top 10. The drop for Amy Adams' rom-com Leap Year was not so steep; it stayed on the heels of the similar, more star-laden It's Complicated. The two big Christmas hits, Alvin and Sherlock, remained in the top five, while The Blind Side, the Sandra Bullock sports weepie that has been in the top 10 for nine consecutive weeks, is still the season's sleeper smash, earning more than $255 million on a $29 million budget.

Those three films can give themselves back-pats, but they still huddle in the huge shadow of Avatar. And it may take a while for a new release to dethrone Cameron's picture over an entire weekend. It slipped only 18% from last weekend's take, and tomorrow it's likely to cross the $500-million mark at the domestic box office. Next weekend it should pass The Dark Knight ($533.3 million domestic), leaving Cameron just one more barrier — his own Titanic — between Avatar and the all-time box office record. (The usual advisory: as ticket prices keep rising, inflation makes a mockery of "all-time" figures. In real dollars, according to a Box Office Mojo chart, Avatar is currently only 36th all-time. The top grosser, Gone With the Wind, earned three times as much in theaters as Avatar has so far.) In foreign markets, Avatar is even more imposing, having earned more than $1.1 billion; that's only about $150 million less than Titanic did in its entire run. Expect a new worldwide champ before Oscar night, Mar. 7.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo.com:

1. Avatar, $41.3 million; $491.8 million, fifth week
2. The Book of Eli, $31.6 million, first weekend
3. The Lovely Bones, $17.1 million; $17.5 million, sixth weekend
4. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, $11.5 million; $192.6 million, fourth week
5. Sherlock Holmes, $9.8 million; $180 million, fourth weekend
6. The Spy Next Door, $9.7 million, first weekend
7. It's Complicated, $7.7 million; $88.2 million, fourth weekend
8. Leap Year, $5.8 million; $17.5 million, second weekend
9. The Blind Side, $5.6 million; $226.8 million, ninth weekend
10. Up in the Air, $5.5 million; $62.8 million, seventh weekend