EARTH TO ECHO Review

Earth to Echo is a critic-proof film. The real question will not be of how much critics sway potential audiences into seeing this film or not, but the reaction of the children and pre-teens in the audience who will either latch onto or dismiss it. Being a few days removed from the film I still can't decide if this is something that will catch on or not, but unfortunately I lean towards the latter. Save for a few of the more visually impressive moments I don't remember much about the film. In a film that is banking on the nostalgia of parents and the innocent mentality of their children this is a film that should be nothing short of a memorable experience, but in a market saturated by science fiction stories and an audience that finds no "out of this world" value or surprise in alien invasion stories you need something different than E.T. The problem is we've all seen the story before and no one cares if you've decided to update it by conveying the narrative through more current technology and by adapting the "found-footage" style that itself is beginning to go out of style. Earth to Echo can be interesting for its look at the way in which kids of today communicate more efficiently (but not necessarily better or less awkwardly) and how smart phones, Face Time, Go Pro Cameras and video chat have enabled them to capture the events of a night such as this documents, but the fact it is more relevant than something like Super 8 doesn't mean we get to know the characters better or invest in them and it most definitely isn't an excuse to re-hash a story we've seen countless times before without adding anything new. The film does have a few character moments, I will give it that, because it isn't completely devoid of innovation. The friendships being pushed to the limits here create some drama for the audience to connect with, but it isn't nearly as compelling as it should be given the child actors (mainly Teo Halm as Alex who is given the more emotional baggage) aren't all that convincing. Regardless of if I am too out of touch with adolescent culture to know if this will connect with them or not (I hope I'm not, I called Despicable Me right out of the gate) or if I've seen one too many movies recycle this same catalyst to precipitate the events that occur this all just feels too tired to be worthy of consideration.

We are introduced to the world of three Nevada boys who I assume are in the sixth or seventh grade as led by Tuck (only credited as Astro here who was apparently on the X Factor) and also includes Alex (Halm) who is the foster child of the group, taken in by his new parents and who is being re-located away from his friends because of a new highway development by the city. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the oddball for lack of a better term, but is endearing to his friends and they take him with them not out of a sense of obligation, but because they care about him. Munch will also be moving soon leaving only Tuck in the neighborhood where they've formed this once-believed indestructible friendship. In light of these recent revelations Tuck is determined to make the most out of the time they have left. When strange occurrences begin to take place and their phones begin to "throw-up" as they so affectionately refer to it the boys decide to look into things further. Munch, who is essentially the Data of the group, figures out that the images the phones are throwing up look fairly similar to maps of a region close by. It isn't clear what this means, but it is intriguing and a good enough hook for this trio of friends to spend their last night together investigating. The boys follow the maps on their phones, duping their parents by telling each set they are staying the night at one anothers houses, but when finally reaching the spot in the middle of the dessert that their phones lead them to it seems there is nothing to find. There is a piece of junk to be kicked around, but only to Munch's curiosity do they take the piece with them. Through this anti-climactic final adventure together the bonds of their friendship are pulled tight, but strange things begin to take place on their trek home when the once believed hunk of junk begins beeping.

It is hard to write about a film like Earth to Echo because 1) much of the plot is being kept under wraps in the marketing and 2) the majority of what unravels is rather generic and nothing worth noting. It is a children's film, one where the makers rely on the audience not having a large pool of knowledge to pull from so that much of what occurs seems fresh while distracting the parents with the affirmation that Hollywood still turns out films like it did when they were kids. The acting is passable at best as it is clear Astro is trying a bit too much to "act" at times and Halm doesn't know how to genuinely pull off an emotional sequence while Hartwig, who arguably has the toughest job of the bunch in being inherently goofy without trying too hard, comes off as the most natural. The boys are joined in the middle of the film by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) who at least pulls some of the attention and strain of the relationships being put to the test off the focus of the film and more onto the main narrative that concerns this tiny little robot alien that was wrapped in the piece of junk in the desert.

Our titular alien communicates only through beeps making for an inherently interesting way in which the story of how it came to earth and what it is trying to accomplish is unearthed (wink, wink). There are certainly other things to enjoy here such as the visual magic that has created the seamless interactions with Echo, the pacing is rather brisk thanks to basic plot devices putting the group on the run and the money scene where Echo's powers finally put themselves on full display by disassembling an 18-wheeler, the gang driving through it, and then reassembling the semi on the other side of them; it really is too bad they gave that shot away in the trailer. This "on the run" mentality comes from both Echo's quest and the urgency placed upon them by the recurrent drop-ins of Dr. Lawrence Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford) who the boys recognize as one of the construction workers on the new highway site that is developing through the middle of their neighborhood. One can likely venture to guess Mr. Madsen is not merely a construction worker but something much more covert that will not only threaten the safety of Tuck, Alex and Munch's new friend but their friendships as well. This is a classic example of a film where the kids know better than the adults and Earth to Echo plays this aspect to the hilt.

The downfall of the film though, and it is hard to even use such harsh words given the earnest and well intentioned nature of the film, is that it isn't anywhere near as fresh or energetic as it wants to be. The implementation of technology along with the found footage element is looked at as being a value-add or as the original aspect to this kind of story that we haven't seen before, but these techniques don't substitute as innovation in story and that seems to be what director Dave Green and screenwriter Henry Gayden were hoping for and hoping the audience wouldn't notice. There really isn't much more to say about the movie besides the fact it will no doubt go exactly where you expect it to if you've seen any kind of science fiction or children's film over the last thirty years and if you thought adults being scared made for lousy camera work wait until you see twelve and thirteen year-old kids try it. I was unfortunate enough to sit in one of the front rows at my screening and with the camera work so erratic and unfocused there were honestly moments when I just looked away because I couldn't deal with the incohesive nature of the shot. I hoped in a few of the moments early on that they might decide to pull it back and that the entire film wouldn't strictly be through the eyes of these pre-teens, but then it honestly would be a contemporary Super 8. It would have been interesting maybe were we to maybe get intermittent interviews with the kids looking back on the experiences they documented, but no, this is a full 90-minutes of home movies courtesy of your children and if the standard story wasn't enough to make this whole thing feel rather typical this influence certainly knocks it down to just below mediocre.