Earth to Echo suffers from the problems you might expect: namely, adhering to the E.T. formula a little too closely for its own good. It also uses found footage techniques, which means you should probably pack your Dramamine. Combining these two ideas makes for a rather shopworn experience, as we count off the beats of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece that Earth to Echo simply can’t get away from, no matter how many YouTube friendly nudges it makes.
More’s the pity because, when you get past that, the film actually has some real assets in its corner. The kids at the heart of it all are quite sweet, showing an authenticity you rarely see in movies these days. Earth to Echo also has some amorphous ideas about life in a post-Millennial world, where electronics define communication and distance is supremely relative. They don’t quite gel, but you can see the start of something that might have pushed the film above its derivative roots.
Beyond that, the primary joys come from watching the main characters interact with each other in the midst of a not-so-mysterious mystery. Their Nevada neighborhood is due for demolition to make way for a freeway bypass, forcing their parents to move and scattering their tight-knit group to the winds. That’s before their phones start going haywire, flashing cryptic directions to a spot in the desert where a visitor from somewhere else could use a little help…
Director Dave Green comes from outside the studio system, and his efforts here display the kind of enthusiasm and love for filmmaking we need more of. He understands how scary the adult world can be, and how finding something that only you can understand touches some very deep parts of a 10-year-old’s heart. His chosen format helps him construct a viable story on comparatively little budget, despite the fact that he resorts to cheats and shortcuts far more than he should. The narrator (Brian “Astro” Bradley) routinely interrupts the story with a hand-waving voiceover, as well as setting up the usual “I record everything” shtick that lets Earth to Echo wander around with shaky cams. The format got the project to the finish line, but it can’t establish the distinctiveness that it needs. Found footage outlived its novelty value long ago, and now constitutes an obstacle to be overcome rather than a viable creative statement.
Green does much better by way of his cast. Their vibes are supremely Spielberg-dependent (with a nod to J.J. Abrams’ Super 8), but there’s no escaping their onscreen camaraderie or charm. They fall into easy stereotypes – the sensitive kid (Reese Hartwig), the troubled foster child (Teo Halm), the pretty girl who’s really one of the guys (Ella Wahlestedt) – but once they get onscreen together, the threadbare personality traits take on a weight and a depth that higher level productions might envy. We find ourselves wrapped up in their adventure almost in spite of ourselves, and their dramatic beats take on an authenticity the powers us through a number of the film’s other shortcomings. When they laugh, we share it. When they cry, we feel it. And though their story feels way too familiar, the characters themselves merit something much stronger.
It’s a near thing sometimes and with good family entertainment at a premium, Earth to Echo isn’t lightly dismissed. The thumbs down comes reluctantly, and had audience motion sickness not gotten involved, it might have done much better for itself. We’ve seen how bad E.T. rip-offs can get, and this one at carries a modicum of self-respect. Would that a can-do attitude and a well-cast ensemble get it all done. It gets close sometimes – close enough to pass if you don’t ask too much – but fewer plays from the Hollywood Handbook would have made a world of difference.