'Earth to Echo'
‘Earth to Echo’ takes the Amblin Entertainment template of stories about kids with troubled families who stumble into genre movie plots and slaps the Found-Footage aesthetic onto it. While that sounds like a gratingly commercial mash-up, it turns out to be a sweetly constructed homage made by filmmakers who clearly grew up on Spielberg productions.
Amblin’s suburban kiddie genre was such an effective movie model that it’s almost shocking that it ever disappeared. The Spielberg-led (or inspired) early productions like ‘E.T.’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Poltergeist’, ‘Gremlins’ and ‘Explorers’ were wonderful examples of blockbuster filmmaking with as much heart as excitement. Then came the wave of ‘Mac & Me’ and ‘Flight of the Navigator’ knock-offs that killed the style of family filmmaking by the end of the 1980s. Somehow, it took until the 2000s for it to be brought back via good old-fashioned homage. The first was of course J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8’, which even had Steven Spielberg’s guiding hand as a producer. Now we have the rather wonderful little surprise that is ‘Earth to Echo’. Neither movie is perfect (‘Super 8’ struggled to deliver an emotional third act while ‘Echo’ has its own share of issues), but both recapture that mix of poignant childhood observation intermingled with genre thrills pretty effectively.
‘Earth to Echo’ is also a Found-Footage feature, a cinematic trend that will likely never disappear entirely, but is certainly losing steam. ‘Echo’ wins points for shoving the genre into the upload-happy hands of kids raised on iPhones, but quickly conforms to all of the quirks and problems of every Found-Footage movie made since ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
Through a cheesy opening voiceover and then a series of by-the-numbers introductory scenes, we’re introduced to our protagonists – three young kids who have grown up together in the suburbs, but now have to split apart because an evil land developer has bought out their neighborhood. Fortunately, the three kids are easily defined by type into the tough loner orphan (Teo Halm), the token geek (Reese Hartwig) and the socially/emotionally stable leader who also holds the camera (Brian “Astro” Bradley). A token girl (Ella Wahlestedt) is tossed in at a certain point for the sake of variety and pubescent flirtation.
The three boys are confused when all their phones “barf” due to some mysterious force in the neighborhood, and decide to spend their last night as a trio investigating the disturbance. Using the barfing phones as a radar, they eventually find a cute little flying robot named Echo and then spend the rest of the night trying to get the alien home while dodging evil government agent types.
The movie attempts that typical Spielberg brand of slight-of-hand that gets the audience to focus on the exciting sci-fi adventure at the center, while quietly developing an emotional arc about the deep bonds and tenuous lifespan of childhood friendships in the background. For the most part, it works. The script by Henry Gayden might be weighed down by endless explanatory voiceover and some unnatural kiddie dialogue, but the emotional arcs are all pretty sound and the kids deliver in their cast-to-type roles. The real secret, however, is the owl-like alien robot Echo, who feels like he was pulled off the set of ‘*batteries not included’ and delivers so much character and emotion through beeps and tweets that it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by the little guy. First time director Dave Green does an admirable job of pacing and structuring the single night adventure and, as in ‘Chronicle’, the Found-Footage style serves to give the digital effects work a slight air of magic realism.
The trouble with the Found-Footage genre is that it also demands particularly naturalistic acting and draws added attention to any stilted dialogue. This issue has plagued countless low budget horror films over the last decade and proves to be a major distraction here. ‘Earth to Echo’ is very structured and manipulative in the way that Amblin flicks always were, but it somehow feels more apparent and distracting when presented in the home movie aesthetic. Thankfully, the emotional punch of the story and the consistently pleasing set-pieces prove more than enough to smooth over the many bumps on the road. ‘Earth to Echo’ is a very charming, warm, sweet and exciting little movie that will hopefully tickle young audiences in the same way its filmmakers were clearly inspired by Spielberg movies in their childhood. Like most feature length homages, the copy isn’t nearly as sharp as the original, but it still delivers some second-hand pleasure.