Earth to Echo is unsurprisingly, exactly as advertised. Owing a considerable debt to the golden age of “kid empowerment” movies of the ’80s, director Dave Green’s story of four friends who discover an alien in distress may feel awfully familiar to those old enough to remember. But for those who aren’t old enough to care about such things, it should spark some summertime imaginations.
The basic premise is that this small Nevada town has been zoned for a freeway expansion, meaning everyone involved has to clear out so that construction can begin. Our heroes, all about 13 years old, have been looking for a way to fight the power, and documentary filmmaking seems to be the way to go. But when their cell phones all begin displaying mysterious images, they decide to get to the bottom of this mystery, and they set off on a bike ride into the desert where they discover (surprise!) an adorable little alien.
So, yes, make no mistake, there’s a lot of E.T., The Goonies, and even a hint of Stand by Me (minus the four-letter words) all prominently on display here. There’s little in the way of originality, but there’s still a fair amount of charm. Thankfully, the core cast (Brian “Astro” Bradley, Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig, and Ella Wahlestedt) are quite good. They’re each capable of conjuring a legitimate laugh or two (especially Hartwig), and they’re as convincing as “normal kids” as you could hope for…except most kids that age are more adept with profanity, but Earth to Echo sticks hard to its PG guns. Fair enough.
Earth to Echo is not quite a “found footage” movie. Instead, what we’re seeing is supposed to be a finished product, with the idea being that it was edited together by the kids themselves after their adventure. It’s less frenetic and shaky than these movies tend to be, but despite some creative edits and explanations, there are a few segments where you simply forget what the intended format is. Nevertheless, there are moments, particularly in the first fifteen minutes, that do have a certain charming kid authenticity to them, even if the concept doesn’t quite hold together all the way through.
The actual alien (that would be “Echo”) is an impressive little visual, sometimes achieved via honest-to-goodness practical effects. I suppose you can add a little Batteries Not Included in to the nostalgia stew that the movie cooks up. Alright, Echo is a bit too adorable for my taste, and there’s never really any doubt that this little mechanical creature means nobody any harm.
That’s probably the movie’s biggest failing, actually. It’s all a little too safe. When they’re present at all, adults are just foggy, well meaning half-wits, which is exactly as they should be in true “kid empowerment movie” fashion. The problem is that even the potential villains, the grown-ups on Echo’s trail, never really come off as menacing. E.T. had that genuinely terrifying bit when they quarantine everyone and a suffering E.T. turns that horrifying shade of whatever the hell it was. Here, I can’t imagine that even a younger child will ever really doubt that our heroes will emerge unscathed.
Earth to Echo may be a little bit saccharine at times, but you know what? This movie wasn’t made for me, so who cares what I think? If this movie gets kids to spend summer using their phones, computers, and cameras to create, tell stories, and actually going out to do stuff and have the kind of kid adventures one can only have on late summer nights, then I’m all for it. It might do exactly that.
If you’ve recently had your senses fried into submission by something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, then Earth to Echo will feel downright refreshing. If you’re a parent, you can safely bring your ten and under to this, and the less cynical of your early and pre-teens could probably get caught up in the fun, too. Most importantly, when it’s over you won’t feel like you’ve sold your soul, and maybe it will get you yearning for those nights when all you needed was a bike, a backpack full of gear, and a few friends with big ideas.
Earth to Echo is in theaters now. You can read our interview with Earth to Echo director Dave Green here.