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EARTH TO ECHO (2014) review

July 14, 2014

 

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written by: Henry Gayden

produced by: Ryan Kavanaugh and Andrew Panay

directed by: Dave Green

rating: PG (for some action and peril, and mild language)

runtime: 89 min.

U.S. release date: July 2, 2014

 

What we needed from the tiresome ‘found footage’ subgenre was a family-friendly sci-fi adventure that aspires to be the “E.T.” for the youth of this generation. It’s not. Not even close. I found myself either nodding off or getting annoyed at the shaky cam that is all over this feature. Then again, my 8 year-old daughter enjoyed it. So, while I may not be the target audience for “Earth to Echo”, it’s easy to identify how this movie would’ve worked better and where it fell short. If anything, it made me realize that the family-friendly sci-fi flicks I grew up with in the 80s were pretty awesome.

“Earth to Echo” takes place in a very Spielbergian modern-day Nevada suburb that’s about to see all its inhabitants relocated and replaced with a new highway. We learn this from the perspective of the gadget savvy Tuck (Astro), who recounts the last night in his neighborhood with his two tight friends, tech genius Munch (Reese Hartwig) and foster kid, Alex (Teo Halm). All three of them will be going their separate ways the next day as their respective family’s move separates them. Something strange starts to happen to all three of them though. All of their smart phones begin to experience disruption which turns into strange images and soon they all agree that what they’re receiving is some kind of map that leads into the desert.

 

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Using a sleepover as cover, the trio take off into the night on their bikes in order to determine what source is directing them into the middle of nowhere. They discover a small alien robot they call Echo, since it mimics the sounds it hears using chirps and beeps. The kids somehow realize that Echo needs to accumulate parts in order to repair his nearby spaceship and accompany the robot to different locations – such as a pawn shop, an arcade and a bar – as their scavenger hunt activity earns the attention of some mysterious authority figures. With the addition of Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a girl Tuck has bragged about kissing and whom Munch calls Mannequin Girl, the now foursome embark on an unpredictable sleepless journey they will never forget.

The idea of basing a movie around the last night together for a group of preteens is interesting enough on its own. There could be mischief or conflict and maybe even genuine emotion shared without the addition of some sci-fi element to set them off on an adventure together. Separating friendships means the tearing apart one’s world at that age, so there would definitely be interesting enough stories to tell without having to bring in an “E.T.” element to their situation.

The gimmick of “found footage” is problematic here. It often is in this subgenre. How the audience has come to see this footage is rarely ever explained (except in “Cloverfield) and in “Earth to Echo” we find Tuck recorded every single moment on his recording devices, either handheld or mounted to his bicycle as he narrates what transpires. But how did we get ahold of this footage? Who “found” it? It’s never clear. In fact, clarity isn’t on the mind of feature-length debut director Dave Green. Through multiple screen shots and jittery handheld shots, he congests the movie with jostled information that often gets lost in the mix. It’s not the first time I’ve watched a found footage film where I wished the gimmick would’ve been jettisoned. If the movie was just shot with steady cams, using only some of Tuck’s footage, this potentially touching story could’ve been along the lines of “Stand By Me” with a dash of “Super 8”.

As you would expect in a movie focusing primarily on the world of preteens, the adults here are vaguely realized with barely any screen time. There’s a potentially threatening government spook, a Dr. Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford, known for Det. Randy Disher on “Monk”), who pops up at different locations during the kid’s scavenger hunt, showing concern for who they are and what they’re doing, but it feels unnatural and just as forced as the “E.T.” attempt.

 

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Speaking of “E.T.”, the character (if you can call it that) of Echo is a blank slate and hardly has the qualities of a living being that would warrant a connection to human being. It’s more like a fun interactive toy with a limited and indecipherable mode of communication (for the audience, at least). It was neither interesting or curious to me, but then again my daughter found him cute, so there we go again canceling me out of the target demographic.

The acting in “Earth to Echo” isn’t bad, but there’s nothing standout or truly memorable. Out of the three friends, I kind of liked Tuck the best, who was played by a boy who goes by “Astro”. A name like Astro was enough to have me wikipedia the kid and I found out his real name is Brian Bradley and he apparently was a contestant on Simon Cowell’s “X-Factor” show as a rapper. Maybe that explains why he seems to be the most charismatic and entertaining (as well as annoying) of the bunch. The other kids are actually quite good, but just aren’t given any material outside of the stereotypical conventions offered to kids of this age in this setting.

It’s odd and frustrating to me that the titular character in “Earth to Echo” is highly unmemorable. We rarely view the world from its point-of-view and therefore have a hard time getting to know it, but then again how would we come across that footage. What the movie has going for it is that it’s really the only non-animated PG movie in theaters right now. As a parent, I can attest that’s hard to come by. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have going for it far outweighs any good that it has and it all starts in that blatant finger-pointing “E.T.” ripoff poster.

In the end, Tuck goes on and on about the bond of friendship, as if screenwriter Henry Gayden felt the need to tack on a Disney Channel coda to cap off the kid’s experience and make sure we knew how these kids felt about friendship. Spelling all that out for me once again excludes me out of the target audience. Come to think of it, I guess I haven’t sat at the kiddie table in a long, long time.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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