There’s a long line of family-friendly films about kids coming to terms with a looming change that threatens to shake their existence to its foundations. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘s Elliott learns from his alien friend how to live in the world outside his playroom. The gang at the core of The Goonies embarks on a treasure hunt before an imminent move shatters their lifelong friendship. These two films in particular help to shape the beating heart of Earth To Echo, from director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden.
The story is a quilted patchwork pieced together from the likes of E.T. and The Goonies.
Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) form a three musketeers of middle school who are about to be broken up. Their small Nevada town is targeted as the future site of a freeway interchange, and everyone’s moving away in different directions. In the days leading up to the big move, a strange rash of cell phone disruptions becomes the prelude to the boys’ discovery that there’s something – they don’t know what – out in the desert.
They concoct a plan to investigate on the eve of the mass move-out, and soon end up on an adventure with an adorable, little owl-like robot alien that they call Echo. A scavenger hunt ensues as the three boys work to help their stranded friend reassemble his spaceship and get back home.
It’s a relatively predictable story — a quilted patchwork pieced together from the likes of E.T., The Goonies, and a handful of others, but with one notable difference: the amateur video-style presentation. “Found footage” would be a misnomer here, as Tuck is a dedicated YouTuber and there’s no indication that his footage collected from a GoPro, camcorder, and camera-fitted glasses was ever “lost.”
The amateur video aesthetic is a stylistic choice that influences more than just the cinematography. All throughout Earth To Echo, YouTube overlays, Skype-style video chat windows, and Google Maps iconography create the sense that this is a work of linear hypertext. It fits the “found footage” genre in that sense, since there’s an unspoken supposition that the viewer is seeing this whole story unfold on a computer monitor. It’s a very current take on this approach to filmmaking, one that helps to set it apart from more recent works, like the Paranormal Activity series or Chronicle.
This constant presence of these flourishes helps to defuse the suspenseless plotting, but it doesn’t save the movie. Gayden’s story is a charming, if predictable, journey, but his script is wanting. The three boys at the emotional heart of Earth To Echo make with plenty of enjoyable banter, but we never really get to know any of them beyond the one-dimensional archetypes established in the film’s opening minutes.
The film never sells the emotional connection between the children and their alien friend.
It’s a baffling shortcoming given how much space there is for these three personalities to develop in what amounts to a very character-focused story. Echo is a borderline MacGuffin for most of the 100-minute running time; he speaks only in beeps, and he’s primarily there to help drive the action. That changes in the final act, but by then it’s too late. The film never sells the emotional connection between the children and their alien friend, and it robs the conclusion of much of its impact.
Then there’s Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a pseudo-love interest (as much as a middle school story can have one) who turns the trio into a foursome when their paths cross. She’s a much more complex character than the other three, but her connection with the boys does their one-dimensionality no favors. Emma’s arrival only serves to highlight the dearth of personalities surrounding her. She quickly asserts herself as de facto leader of this crew, only it’s not because the story says she does. She’s simply the most interesting person to watch.
The end result is a charming-but-shallow tale of waning childhood that’s heavy on style and light on just about everything else. Earth To Echo is a worthwhile escape from the summer heat, especially if there are young ones tagging along, but it hardly lives up to the high bar set by the predecessors that so clearly inspired it.