Two years following its release, I feel as though we, as a moviegoing society, have still not wholeheartedly arrived at a general consensus on the merits (or lack thereof) of James Camerons mult-billion earning Avatar. Youre no doubt familiar with the criticisms by now and depending on who you ask, the films narrative is flimsy at best and blatantly plagiarized at worst. Outcries from defenders and advocates of everything from Ferngully to Pocahontas to Dances With Wolves could be heard far and wide upon Avatars release, easily the first time any of those films had been even somewhat relevant since their initial theatrical runs - but yet inevitably, the Avatar pendulum swung the other way for a multitude of fans, who lauded the film for its technical prowess and awe-inspiring spectacle. For these folks, the plot-related shortcomings of the film either didnt exist or simply werent the point. For them, the films spectacle and sheer ambition carried the day. Personally, if you put a neurotoxin-tipped arrow to my neck, Id lean toward the former camp. While I have the utmost respect for the considerable amount of effort Cameron exerted to get this picture to look and feel exactly as it did in his minds eye, my inability to care for one single character and, by proxy, any real action taking place onscreen will never make the movie like anything but the greatest Universal Studios ride Ive ever been on. However, I think the criticism of Avatar as a retread of those aforementioned white man learns the ways of the savages tales is misguided. Its my perception that if Cameron is lifting from anyone, its himself. A few weeks back, I took in a midnight showing of Camerons 1986 sci-fi masterpiece Aliens at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, DC. I wont spend a tremendous amount of space here pontificating to you about why Aliens is terrific, but upon this particular viewing, the film was elevated to a whole new level of magnitude and I initially couldnt quite pinpoint why. Then it hit me: This was the first time I had seen Aliens in the post-Avatar world. If youve not had the pleasure yet, I would suggest you embrace the opportunity to view one the finest entries in the history of the genre through a new spectrum. Its not just that the films share the same central conceit: Human attempts to colonize a distant planet are stymied by an aggressive alien presence and the military being tasked with overpowering the extraterrestrial opposition. Battles ensuing, Sigourney Weaver is there, an alien even fights human being in a giant pneumatic robot suit. Perhaps Im a little too deep in the cinematic woods to see the trees, but for some reason I cant shake the feeling that Cameron looked at what he had done with Aliens, and rather cavalierly sought to convey the same story thrust with a nifty protagonistic shift. Its as though George Roy Hill awoke in cold sweat one day and decided to tell the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from the point of view of Lord Baltimore and Joe Lefors. On its face, this at least an interesting conceit but where Avatar falls short (circling back to my initial point) is in executing the shift of focus from the badass Marines to the aliens fighting for their survival where Cameron fails to concoct even one marginally relatable or interesting character. But before we get that far, lets talk about what (sort of) works in what we will henceforth refer to as the shift. Simply put, the antagonists in both films are rather effective. Stan Winstons work in crafting the relentless Alien xenomorph army and their awe-inspiring Queen speaks for itself. But in Avatar, the mercenaries and Stephen Langs Col. Quartich serve the same function rather effectively. Their motives are simple, their leader is menacing, and they dont require a tremendous amount of character-building context to work. Conversely, the thing that strikes me most about Alien is how amazingly Cameron handles and develops the phalanx of Marine grunts tasked with eradicating the Alien threat. In a film whose chief task is guiding the story through the eyes of Ellen Ripley (one of the 10 greatest film characters ever in her own right and perhaps the greatest female hero), a lesser director and cast would have allowed the Marine element of the film to descend into disposable, interchangeable and ultimately forgettable tough guy fodder. Even now, I can recall a distinguishing moment from every one of the Marines in Aliens. Bolstered by terrific performances from Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, Al Matthews, and of course Bill Paxton (his turn as Private Hudson is one of the most hysterical performances ever committed to celluloid. There isnt one line he delivers that fails to slay me.), the grunts transcend from necessary tools of war for the purposes of the film to a band of heroic and emotionally resonant warriors. This transcendence is made all the more prominent when, one by one, the grunts begin to meet their demise. Each loss means something to us. And that is where Avatar commits its most egregious sin. Both Pandoras Navi and the idealistic team of scientists who seek to gain their trust fail to strike anything resembling a connection with the audience, at least in my case. Part of the digression is that Cameron is chiefly concerned with communicating a heavy-handed theme of nature, community, and oneness. The problem with that is that communicating a theme is basically synonymous with failing to tell a story. While Cameron provides his characters with little opportunity to gain any sort of momentum, it doesnt help that blander-than-sand Sam Worthington is expected to shoulder the storytelling load. The casting of such an uninteresting and vapid leading man at the center of what was intended to be an unprecedented cinematic adventure remains one of Avatars most confounding transgressions, particularly when juxtaposed with the skilled professionals that comprise the Aliens cast. As I highlighted earlier, defenders of Avatar repeatedly overlook its shortcomings and give it credit for its ambition alone. When they speak of its ambition, theyre generally talking about its innovative visual splendor and its unabashed commitment to taking the audience to places they have not seen before in a film. For James Cameron though, perhaps his most hubristic ambition was to attempt to expand and improve on what I consider to be his finest film to date.