Oscar Overload: The Avatar-District 9 Brawl Begins

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It wasn’t all that long ago that we dared to speculate that 2010 might be the year when sci-fi finally returns to a place of prominence at the Oscars ceremony.

Well, the nominees were announced just a few minutes ago and it’s official: Our cup floweth over. Consider today the Academy’s formal apology to you and me, and every other serious movie geek who felt more than a little slighted by last year’s Dark Knight snub.

(More on Techland: At the Oscars, is Avatar the new Star Wars?)

Alongside such predictable best picture nominees as Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker were both Avatar and District 9. True, no sign of National Board of Review darling Star Trek – meaning that apparently District 9 was deemed the superior entertainment by the mysterious Oscar voters – but still a big-league showing just a year after The Dark Knight was given the middle finger by Hollywood’s ruling class, launching a wave of backlash that precipitated this year’s rule changes. Ten best picture nominees from now on; and in year one, the result is not one but two serious sci-fi spectacles.

Now I’ve been watching District 9 for a long while now, believing that this could finally be the sci-fi event to snag a surprise nod. And then along came Avatar, steamrolling its way around the globe, surpassing Titanic as the all-time box office champion and ensuring James Cameron – Oscar darling – that his Pandoran epic would lock down one of the best picture slots.

But after writing about District 9, I was surprised by the divisive reactions that I encountered. There are those who think it’s a powerful allegory to South African history. And then there are those who think the setup is a gimmick for a routine alien shootout. Same with Avatar: A whole lot of people who think its visual prowess is nothing less than a game-changer for the industry. And then a whole lot of people who clearly think the story s.u.c.k.e.d.

(More on Techland: See our five most underrated sci-fi movie masterpieces)

I actually bet there will be a lot of people today who come to the conclusion that this year’s only deserving sci-fi event – Star Trek – was a snub on the level of The Dark Knight.

But before the debate amps up – and believe you me, we’ll be back with a few more Oscars thoughts later today – let me say this: Cameron and Neill Blomkamp accomplished the near-impossible, taking alien creatures in fantasy landscapes and rendering affecting, empathetic vision that explored the issues of our world in a whole new context – and in far more compelling fashion than such fellow nominees as Blind Side or A Serious Man. Even if we have our qualms with the particulars, I think we can all agree, as sci-fi lovers, that these two movies swung big and delivered in many ways. I, for one, know that I saw many younger viewers returning to see Avatar three or four times. A whole new generation of sci-fi geeks are being molded and inspired right now.

So please remember: It’s a good year for sci-fi in the mainstream. Very good. Maybe a little too good. Over the next four weeks, up until Oscars night March 7, I fully expect the Avatar-District 9 spat to grow heated. Guerrilla-style documentary approach, versus $500 million, 10-year technological revolution. Peter Jackson protégé versus king of the world. Racism vs. eco-terrorists. Grainy 2-D versus industry-changing 3-D. Box office contender versus box office champ.

I have a feeling that fans of one are more than likely critics of the other. All of which means that things are gonna get ugly. The great Avatar-District 9 war of 2010 has just begun.

More on Techland:

What We’re Looking Forward to in 2010: Sci-Fi Movies

The Top 10 Spaceships: A Tale of Thrusters and Heat Shields

Best of the Decade: Sci-Fi Movies