James Cameron, Meet Neill Blomkamp

Two science fiction films cracked the nominee list for Best Picture for this year's Oscars.

One was an intense, well-plotted thriller that examined the human condition through the eyes of some cool-looking CGI aliens.

The other was directed by James Cameron.

Yup, Cameron's "Avatar" may have cost the equivalent of the GNP of Argentina to make and may have earned eleventy trillion dollars, but it's among the weakest nominees in this year's field (except in some of the technical categories).

Neill Blomkamp's "District 9," on the other hand, was made with a shoestring budget yet is a better sci-fi movie in every measurable arena. Despite the paltry budget, the alien bugs look just as good onscreen as Cameron's blue Na'vi.

"District 9" is much more tense and unpredictable, keeping a quick pace but never losing the viewer. "Avatar" is entirely predictable with a plot that's been seen many, many times before in movies including, but hardly limited to, "The Last Samurai" and "Dances With Wolves," among others.

"District 9" does a great job creating interesting, gray characters who are neither good nore evil, merely self-serving in their quest for survival. Human or alien, they both reflect the human condition of just trying to make it through the day. "Avatar" uses 3-D technology to create 2-D characters, with perfect blue people  communing with nature via conveniently dangling bio-data ports to face off with villains who are so rotten they have not a single redeeming feature.

"District 9" intelligently examines race relations, apartheid, illegal immigration and social ills among aliens forced to scavenge after they crashland on Earth, picking up the worst vices of humanity while confined to a ghetto shantytown. "Avatar" hypocritically condemns the use of technology even though the movie itself couldn't have been made without advances in technology.

Yet "Avatar" remains the movie to beat whilst "District 9's" nomination will likely be an award in of itself. What Blomkamp showed viewers, and what Cameron has forgotten, is that special effects ought to be used to augment a story, not replace the need for having a story.

Certainly, the big sci-fi movie passed over for a Best Picture nomination, "Star Trek," was big budget as well, but director JJ Abrams new that while the extra dollars made for a great-looking movie, the effects never once got in the way of his storytelling. "Star Trek" shows you can have a big budget, big effects movie but remain true to the story, something "Avatar" doesn't do.

With "Avatar" being the frontrunner, Cameron will be the man to beat for Best Director, but I'm pulling for his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. Unlike her ex, Bigelow showed in "The Hurt Locker" that strong characters and tense action sequences make for a great combination of storytelling. "Hurt Locker" had all the intensity "Avatar" lacked, making it  a much truer action movie despite no major battle sequences or chase scenes.

And if it's not Bigelow winning, then I hope it's Jason Reitman, who had no action sequences in "Up in the Air," but told a story with strong characterization and heart. (Also, Reitman was robbed of a nomination for "Thank You For Smoking," so the Academy owes him one).

"Avatar" wasn't a terrible movie, just a terribly average one. I probably wouldn't hate it so much if everyone didn't love it so much -- my feelings seem to be inversely proportional to the rest of the populace. I hated it much less than last year's Best Picture winner, "No Country For Old Men." "Avatar" seems to be a gigantic missed opportunity for true greatness.

Still, the clueless Oscar voters will look at "Avatar's" big box office and probably pick it as the winner, thinking they are more in touch with a viewing public that no longer seeks to demand the best of its filmmakers when they can be shown pretty pictures for three hours instead. More's the pity.

COMING THURSDAY: I'm chatting with "Lost" star Michael Emerson today, and I'll have the interview up tomorrow, so I'll save the discussion for last night's premiere until then.

WEDNESDAY'S BEST BETS: In the ultimate in commercialization, CBS promos this Sunday's Super Bowl with a special on the game's best commercials at 8 p.m., followed by "Criminal Minds" and "CSI: NY."

"Human Target" (Fox, 8 p.m.) hopefully settles into its Wednesday timeslot with a new episode, followed by "American Idol" at 9 p.m.

ABC airs new episodes of "The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" from 8:30 p.m.-10 p.m., followed by a new "Ugly Betty" at 10 p.m., while NBC has a new "Mercy" at 8 p.m.

On cable, USA has a new "Psych" at 10 p.m., while Luke Perry guest stars as, ironically enough, a fake psychic on a clever installment of "Leverage" (TNT, 10 p.m.)