LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Since June, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opened the best picture race to 10 nominees, Oscar has been waiting for a knight in shining box office armour-preferably a Dark Knight: a commercial powerhouse with strong critical credentials. Just when it appeared that a whole host of smaller, specialty films were lining up to fill the available slots-in the process, undermining the Academys attempt to reach out to a wider audience-Foxs Avatar, with a veritable flourish of trumpets, has ridden to the rescue. Critically, the movies collective reviews stand at 83 out of 100 on the Metacritic Web site. At RottenTomatoes. com, 83% of the movies notices were positive, and among the sites sampling of top critics, the approval rate rose to 94%. Even the Los Angeles Times Kenneth Turan, one of the loudest voices torpedoing Camerons Titanic, hailed the filmmakers new movie, praising it for restoring a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience and testifying the films romantic protagonists paradoxically end up feeling like creatures whose fates we care more about than we did DiCaprio and Kate Winslets on the boat. Commercially, Avatar appears on track as well. Its first-weekend domestic gross clocked in at $77 million, which was several million dollars higher than the studios Sunday estimate. It remains to be seen whether it will attract the repeat business that floated Titanics boat week to week. Its worth noting, though, that moviegoers showed a preference for seeing the movie in 3D 72% of the opening-weekend take came from 3D screens, 13% from Imax 3D screens. Since theres still a relatively limited number of 3D and Imax screens in play, that suggests the movie will play like an old-fashioned, leggy blockbuster, rather than the one- or two-weekend wonders of the standard superwide release, with moviegoers lining up for the available screens. All of which brings us back to the Academy, where the movie officially screened at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on Sunday evening. The audience was packed, and the response was huge, with waves of applause greeting individual names during the end credits. Hollywood insiders, recognizing the technical leaps involved, already have begun applauding. None other than Steven Spielberg has called Avatar the most evocative and amazing science-fiction movie since 'Star Wars. But its not just about technique. Thematically, the movie also might strike a nerve with the Academy. Honestly, its the most liberal, old-fashioned Hollywood movie in years, said one member of Sundays audience. Its eco-friendly, and its a diatribe against George Bushs America, raping and pillaging sovereign nations for their resources. So how big could Avatars footprint be when the Academy noms are announced February 2? Right now, the number thats being bandied about is nine-drawn from a menu that includes best picture, director, visual effects, editing, art direction, sound, sound editing, score and song. (Cinematography, costumes and makeup are more of a stretch, given how much of that work was done digitally.) Unlike Titanic, which earned acting nods for Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart, Avatar will have a tougher time winning over the actors branch unless its feeling generous and rewards Sigourney Weaver with a supporting actress nomination for her feisty scientist. By rights, Zoe Saldana also should be part of the conversation for her warrior princess Neytiri. But while the actress might have displayed her versatility with her equally high-profile appearance this summer as Uhura in Star Trek, shes not seen in the flesh in Avatar. Even though the studio hopes to get out the message that the actors involved delivered full-blown performances that Cameron captured digitally, thats still a tough sell. Witness the fact that the Screen Actors Guild ignored Avatar when it handed out its noms last week. (One added factor: Most of the 2,300-member SAG nominating committee probably hadnt seen the movie by the time its nominating ballots were due December 14.) But even though Avatar isnt expected to pick up the 14 noms that Titanic commanded, if it makes it into best picture contention, that will be an achievement in itself since the Academy-at least under its old five-pic rule poise-has been fairly resistant to fantasy and sci-fi movies in its top category. Since 1977s Star Wars, only 1982s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the three Lord of the Rings movies at the beginning of this decade have made that select list of nominees. A movie like 1993s Jurassic Park-groundbreaking in its day-had to settle for visual effects and two sound noms, all of which it won. Avatar is looking like it will join that club-and potentially attract lots of self-proclaimed Avartards to the March 7 Oscar broadcast as well. Adam Shankman, whos producing the show with Bill Mechanic, certainly was jazzed when he tweeted early Monday: 'Avatar is not only brilliant but has the most powerful environmental message of the year. Amazing. Game-changer. Cue the dancing Navi.