Most actors don’t usually quote biblical parables when talking about their work. But when the two movies fighting for the Best Picture Oscar are a scrappy indie war drama and the most expensive movie of all time, scripture is kind of the only place to turn. “Does it feel like a David and Goliath story? Of course. It’s pretty obvious,” Jeremy Renner, the Best Actor-nominated star of The Hurt Locker, says of his film’s battle with Avatar for the big trophy on March 7. “But I think it’s the highest compliment that we can compete with a big daddy like that.”

The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s nail-biting look at a bomb-defusing team in Iraq, didn’t immediately seem like a top Oscar contender. It premiered at a few film festivals in 2008 and eked out just two Spirit Award nominations last year, failing to score a Best Feature nod. But now it’s tied James Cameron’s behemoth with nine Academy Award nominations, surprising many who thought Avatar would claim the highest tally. Among the shocked observers? Locker‘s own producer Greg Shapiro: “I just sent an e-mail to Kathryn and [screenwriter-producer] Mark Boal saying, ‘Did anyone think that day the septic tank overflowed into the catering room and spoiled all of our lunches and everyone went home puking that we were going to end up with a movie with nine nominations?'”

For more on the Oscar race and a complete guide to all the nominees, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands February 5. Click here for a coupon for $1 off this special double issue.