Earth to Echo
Found-footage sci-fi film is a weak echo of earlier, better efforts
Earth to Echo
Directed by Dave Green
Cast: Brian “Astro” Bradley, Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig
Hollywood is one big “What if?” factory. Once upon a time, that meant creating entire imaginary worlds from whole cloth: The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Jaws, The Godfather, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nowadays the fantasies of movie studios have become significantly more pedestrian. “What if we rebooted Spider-Man again?” “What if we remade Robocop?” “What if we did another Transformers movie?” As films become increasingly corporate controlled and paint-by-numbers formulaic, we end up with stuff like Earth to Echo, a perfectly well-meaning family film that wants really badly to recall the simple joy of ’80s adventure tales like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985) and Flight of the Navigator (1986). Unfortunately, instead of building on that nostalgic tradition, this low-watt project seems to be based on some studio executive’s cocktail napkin scrawl of “What if E.T. were a found-footage film?”
Earth to Echo is founded more on a jigsaw puzzle than a script. There are a hell of a lot of recognizable pieces from Steven Spielberg’s beloved E.T. on the table. There’s an awful lot of J.J. Abrams’ retro sci-fi flick Super 8 stuck in as well. And there’s plenty of Josh Trank’s handheld superhero movie Chronicle wedged in on top of it all. I’d put money on the filmmakers having borrowed bits from an obscure, British, kid’s sci-fi film from 1977 called The Glitterball too. Jam all those vaguely similar pieces together, and you’ve got a picture that’s considerably less than the sum of its parts.
In suburban Nevada three tweenage pals are being forced to move from their middle-class neighborhood due to a major construction project that’s kicking everyone out of their homes. (Yup, that’s the same setup as Goonies.) Tuck (“The X Factor” contestant Brian “Astro” Bradley) is meant to be the artistic one, I suppose. He’s the kid who won’t put down his video camera or stop posting videos to YouTube. The entirety of the film is shown through Tuck’s various recording devices, giving us that oh-so-trendy, handheld, “found footage” look. At least this isn’t a horror movie, so there’s not a lot of running and screaming to give viewers Cloverfield-style nausea. Tuck’s best buds include Munch (Reese Hartwig), who’s kind of the nerd of the group. (He’s seen touching a computer at one point.) The third kid, Alex (Teo Halm), is probably meant to be the tough kid or the cool kid or something. The young actors are all quite natural on screen, but the script doesn’t give the characters they’re playing any clear personality traits, so it’s wasted effort.
Earth to Echo wants to be a fun childhood romp, but it just doesn’t have the chops. Or the budget.
On the eve of their big pack-up-and-move, our three protagonists start getting weird messages on their cell phones. Somehow they figure out the messages contain maps. Sneaking out at night, they track the maps to a mysterious lump of metal out in the middle of the desert. Turns out it’s a tiny space alien, who looks exactly like the metal owl from Clash of the Titans. “Echo,” as they dub him, has crashed on Earth and needs help reassembling his spaceship. From here on out, the film becomes a simple, linear “fetch quest” from any one of a thousand poorly constructed video games. The kids are given a new map; they go to the designated point and pick up the chunk of space metal, which attaches itself to Echo. The locations are completely random and rather illogically spread out. One piece is stuck inside the jukebox at a biker bar. Another piece is wedged in a claw machine at an arcade. Still another is stuffed inside a tuba at a pawn shop. That was one weird crash.
Somewhere along the way, the boys pick up a fourth search party member in the form of Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who rounds out the group’s diversity but adds nothing in the way of personality. (Seriously, the boys refer to her as “Mannequin Girl,” and it’s hard to argue.) At one point some ill-defined government bad-guy types chase them, but it provides little in the way of excitement or tension. Everything here is strictly one-dimensional and unidirectional: Go to point A, pick up piece; go to point B, pick up piece; repeat until credits roll.
Earth to Echo wants to be a fun childhood romp, but it just doesn’t have the chops. Or the budget. Echo, the cute lil’ CGI robot thing on the posters, isn’t in the film for more than five minutes. And he doesn’t talk or move or do much of anything when he is on screen. Let’s just say he’s in no danger of usurping E.T.’s pop-cultural spot.
Earth to Echo is smart enough to steal from the best, but the direction (from first-timer Dave Green) and the script (from first-timer Henry Gayden) are just not up to snuff. The filmmakers never find their own voices, merely echoing snippets of what came before them. Lack of originality isn’t the biggest crime in Hollywood. But you should at least improve on what you’re stealing. J.J. Abrams did a much better job of imitating mid-’80s Amblin films with his 2011 feature Super 8 (a film with almost exactly the same plot, characters, tone and nostalgic leanings as Earth to Echo). And even it didn’t make much of a splash at the box office.
Mild, unoriginal and easy on those with heart conditions, Earth to Echo may appeal to some of the more undemanding members of the kiddie set. There’s nothing harmful or offensive or even particularly awful about it. But, when it comes to old-fashioned, Spielberg-style sci-fi wonderment, Earth to Echo is strictly earthbound.