I agree. If you are beginner and have enough money, consider entry level (Canon EOS Rebel XT, Nikon D50) or prosumer (Canon EOS 20D or Nikon D70s) SLR. Every one offers full auto mode, basic exposure modes (portrait, landscape... ) and creative modes (program auto, shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual mode). If you do some reading about aperture and shutter settings, you'll find incredibly easy to use aperture and shutter priority. And there is of course huge flexibility and speed compared to compact cameras.
As for digital vs. film debate. Buy digital and forget film unless you want to do very special types of photography. As far as I know, film is still better for astro photography compared to digital. And if you want to do astro photography, you'll probably end up with 30 years old, fully mechanical and fully manual SLR anyway (not for professional purposes of course, just for your fun...).
I would suggest you Canon EOS 20D. I know it's expensive (for me it was VERY expensive), but if you're not a working pro (you aren't) or you aren't planning to become one in 2-3 weeks, then this camera will last you couple of years, during which you'll buy some nice lenses (like Canon 17-40 f4 L and Canon 70-200 F4 L - there are also other very nice lenses of course) and save for a new body... I don't know which model will be new in 3-4-5 years .. 40D, 50D??
Nikon also offers very nice line-up. D70 is also excellent camera and Nikkor lenses are considered to be excellent as well.
So start gathering information about cameras above. Many times you'll find crap like Nikon/Canon is better than Canon/Nikon... You'll need lot's of megapixels, 8mpix is HUGE advantage compared to 6 mpix.. forget about that. All cameras from theese manufacturers will deliver you amazing pictures. Just pick up the camera you like the most and everything will be ok.