Earth to Echo (2014) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some action and peril, and mild language
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Brian 'Astro' Bradley, Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford
Director: Dave Green
Screenplay: Henry Gayden
Review published July 6, 2014
Earth to Echo is an attempt to marry the found-footage techniques of today with the Spielberg-produced sci-fi and adventure films of the 1980s, especially ones like E.T., The Goonies, and *batteries not included. I would also toss in Explorers and Stand by Me for good measure. Fans of recent cinema will also see many parallels to J.J. Abrams' Spielberg homage, Super 8, which featured a similar premise of kids making films who encounter a misunderstood alien being that just wants to go home.
The setting is a small housing development in Nevada that's about to change forever due to a highway project that is set to go through town. Three tween best friends -- Tuck (Bradley, "The X Factor"), Alex (Halm, Bukowski) and Munch (Hartwig, "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim") -- are going to move away, except to different communities where they will likely never get to see each other again (given the nature of Facebook and the sundry means of staying in touch these days, one would think they'd find a way). It's the last night that all three will be together, so they make the most of it by recording their adventures with a variety of digital cameras by investigating the likely source of something that is making their cell phones bug out, which they later discover is some sort of map of the Mojave desert.
Their exploration leads to the discovery of a strange metallic contraption of unknown origin on the desert floor, which they soon discover to be a capsule that contains a small sentient being of alien origin, whom the kids dub 'Echo' due to his electronic beep repetitions (it seems to repeat phone alert messages and ringtones), who is hurt and trying desperately to find the parts he needs to repair himself and his ship in order to get back to space before he is caught by the construction crew in the area desiring to capture Echo and find its elusive ship.
Although it is a found-footage movie, and does have quite a bit of shaky-cam theatrics, this is a higher budget than most that use the technique. The HD digital cameras give the film a sharp and detailed look, perhaps too sharp to believe coming from a tiny spy camera mounted within a pair of eyeglasses, but if you can go with the barely sensible premise for the sake of the overall enjoyment, the logic isn't something that will matter much. As the budget lends to a reduction in the amount of effects shots it can support, much of the futuristic elements come through the use of sound effects, with one particularly redundant element being that Echo will occasionally get out and fly around whatever room he is in and cause all sorts of random objects to topple over, get knocked off of walls, and whatever else might give the impression of a ricocheting alien Taz, the Tasmanian Devil. Again, suspension of disbelief is a must in presuming that their GoPro cameras are capable of recording studio-quality digital surround sound, perfectly clear no matter how near or far from the recording device the sound emanates.
Earth to Echo is directed by first-time feature helmer David Green, from a script by Henry Gayden (also his debut feature), who set about making a family film that reminds them of the kinds of movies they found inspiration in when they were growing up. Although there are echoes (no pun intended) of Spielberg, this film falls too far short of the mark to consider a success in matching up to the levels of its inspiration. Perhaps viewers who are as nostalgic as Green and Gayden will get caught up reminiscing, but the film on its own terms lacks real imagination, plausibility, emotional connection, and a good narrative build-up. In other words, for a film with this much wonderment in its intentions, it feels like the cinematic equivalent of drinking a warm, flat soda.
The trio child actors is the best thing about the film, even if they tend to emote in that Disney TV kind of way. They are movie-kids and not real-life kids, to be sure, but each of them is at least appealing in his respective role, and they share a decent chemistry with one another that suggests they really could be best buds in real life. Unfortunately, there really isn't enough character development to give us more than a superficial understanding of their dynamic, and at only 89 minutes, there definitely had been the opportunity to inject an extra 10 or 15 minutes to give us more of the background of these kids and how long (and to what extent) they've known each other. Without that, the lump in our throat knowing that this is the last day they will ever all be together is never present, and the bittersweet delivery of the epilogue rings hollow.
There are a decent amount of flaws to the film, but the primary reason that excitement stays dormant most of the time is that it has terrible, contrived villains in the construction crew. There really is little incentive for these men to do what they do, and there's only one representative that the kids seemingly ever run into, played by Jason Gray-Stanford (Flags of Our Fathers), who just looks intense and makes a lot of threats that don't feel like they carry dire enough consequences to make their adventure truly ominous.
As this is a relatively modestly budgeted science-fiction adventure flick, the special effects shots are kept to a minimum, with the bulk of the effects rendering going to the character of Echo itself, who looks like a smaller, more futuristic version of the robotic Bubo the Owl from the original Clash of the Titans, if combined with the cuddly cuteness of a Mogwai. We instantly like Echo because of its inherent adorable design, even though there really isn't anything it does or says that would otherwise have earned our investment in its plight.
Younger kids, especially ones who haven't watched the half-dozen aforementioned films, may respond to this the most, but if they are that unfamiliar with these 1980s gems, why in the world would you not bestow upon them the pleasure of the better-made classics instead of this half-realized knock-off? Earth to Echo lives up to its name by being a far cry from the original voice.
©2014 Vince Leo