LOS ANGELES // In any ordinary year, the choice for Best Picture at the Oscars would be clear cut. James Cameron's visionary sci-fi epic Avatar has it all, at least on paper. It is a cultural touchstone in age when feature films are waning in influence and importance. It is technically ground-breaking - a film that had to wait years for 3D computer graphics to catch up with the imagination of its writer-director before it could be completed.
It is a monster box-office hit on track to become the highest-grossing movie ever - a milestone previously achieved by Cameron himself with his last outing as a writer-director, Titanic. Most years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would give an arm and a leg to have a bona fide blockbuster on the list of Best Picture nominees. And yet the outcome of tomorrow night's awards spectacular in Hollywood is far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, the smart money is no longer on Avatar at all.
Rather, the favourite is a tiny art-house movie, made on a shoestring, on the commercially unpromising subject of the Iraq war. The Hurt Locker was made for roughly 1/25th of Avatar's budget and has taken in less than US$20 million (Dh72m) at the box office worldwide - compared with the $250 billion and counting reaped by Avatar. But it has captured the imagination of Academy members, Hollywood columnists and bloggers who have praised the way it takes the viewer inside the conflict and into the very suit worn by US bomb disposal experts risking their lives to disarm roadside bombs on the hostile streets of Baghdad. Is this the Academy once again trying to prove that it is still relevant at a time when the awards seem to be about self-promotion rather than honouring quality filmmaking?
Or perhaps its is yet another version of the classic David and Goliath story - the irresistible (and much exploited) Hollywood storyline in which the underdog sneaks up to victory against the odds. That is certainly part of the explanation, but the biblical allusion may be wrong. This is not David and Goliath so much as Samson and Delilah - the strongman who risks being undone by a woman he once loved.
It has escaped nobody's attention in the world's filmmaking capital that the director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, was once married to Cameron. The Oscars love a good storyline, and a showdown between two ex-spouses is a scenario any self-respecting reality television producer could envy. And there is more: most Oscar voters would never say so publicly, but their reluctance to embrace Avatar wholeheartedly has something to do with their reservations about the story and the screenplay (Academy voters rarely warm to science fiction) and something, almost certainly, to do with their feelings about Cameron.
He may be universally acknowledged as a man with a rare ability to divine public taste - he has been churning out monster hits ever since the first Terminator in 1984 - but he also has a reputation as a bit of an ogre on set, with the boundless self-confidence to match. When he accepted one of his many Oscars for Titanic back in 1998 and proclaimed, "I am the king of the world!", few viewers realised he was quoting his own movie. The line was widely interpreted as an insufferable piece of public hubris - and it may be the Academy still has not forgiven him.
It could be, of course, that all the predictions are wrong - not least because this year, for the first time since 1943, there are 10 Best Picture nominees instead of five. The eight others have generated hardly any ink, but one or two of them - Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, perhaps, or the George Clooney picture Up in the Air - could just be in a position upset the front-runners. Part of the reason the race could be wider open than the pundits predict is the peculiar voting system adopted by the Academy this year. Instead of a straight winner-takes-all system - the way Americans elect their politicians in all but a handful of local races - the Academy is operating a preferential voting system whereby every eligible member ranks his or her top five choices in order.
If no film wins an outright majority on the first ballot, the votes of the least popular film are transferred to the number two title on those voters' lists. If a second ballot fails to produce a winner, the process is repeated, as many times as is needed. That system, in turn, raises the possibility of a compromise title breaking the deadlock between two front-runners - giving the Oscar, in essence, to everyone's second favourite movie.
That assumes, of course, that there is a consensus on everyone's second favourite movie. We will never know exactly how the process works, because it is a closely held secret known only to a couple of accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers. All we will have to go on is the envelope wielded by the night's co-hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, and those magic words that one of them will say: "And the Oscar goes to - ."
* The National