Developed, funded, and then eventually discarded by Disney, Earth to Echo is an interesting stab at creating a technologically updated version of E.T. for today’s easily distracted youth. Whereas Steven Spielberg’s lovable alien desired only to phone home on a landline, Echo the robot overtakes the smartphones of our protagonists and gives them GPS directions to where they need to go, all while using phone cameras as a substitute for his broken eyes. It’s a neat trick, and one that possibly could have been explored further if Echo was actually in the movie for longer. Instead, he seems like an afterthought, and the real stars of the story are the quartet of humans who escort him around the desert looking for the spaceship parts he needs. The real joys from Echo come from the natural humor and chemistry that comes from its child actors, which is an accomplishment all its own. Their reactions to unbelievable situations are realistic and charming, and that will be enough to get its intended younger audience through some of its more contrived plotting and the utter lack of interaction with the film’s title character.
Earth to Echo follows the last day that three young friends have together before their neighborhood is torn down and they are forced to move away. The entire movie is composed of footage supposedly taken by Tuck (Astro), who is never without a camera or spy glasses just like any other main character in a found footage film. There is even a clever scene where Tuck is filming a water gun fight as if it were a first person shooter. He is friends with Alex (Teo Halm), who is too cool for school and listens to indie rock, and Munch (Reese Hartwig), who is a mixture of the clean cut awkward kid, the highly technical computer hacker, and the chubby comic relief depending on what the script needs from him. The three friends discover that their phones were being manipulated and decide to bike out into the desert to investigate, which leads them to where Echo crash landed onto Earth. The group are joined halfway through the film by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who is sadly given little to do other than serve as the female in the group.
Earth To Echo
In Theaters: July 2nd, 2014
Runtime: 89 min
Rating: Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language
Director: Dave Green
Cast: Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese C. Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt
Genre: Adventure, Family, Sci-Fi
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Distributor: Relativity Media
Official Site: http://www.callhimecho.com/
Echo’s story in the film seems to be only a few scraps from a greater whole. We never get a sense of who the little robot is or what society he comes from. He speaks only in small beeps, imitating a cell phone ringtone originally (hence the Echo moniker). This leads to him (her? it?) only being able to answer yes or no questions from our heroes, and so his background and motivations are painted with only the broadest strokes. Echo is also damaged from his crash landing, so several times he is sealed into his escape pod and forgotten about while the movie plays out around him. There is some value to mystery in stories like this, but not even the supposed hacker of the group seems mystified by this living cybernetic organism. Instead, Echo is a cute floating MacGuffin who has one cool trick in the whole movie (which I wont spoil because even I got a kick out of it), but little else. There are also a few obvious attempts to hide or obscure the character during the film, which makes me think that the CGI budget wasn’t there? It doesn’t really matter, it’s just strange to see a movie tell the story of E.T. with the alien as such a tertiary character.
Anyway, you’d think that all this would be a strike against the movie, but in the moment, as a viewer, I didn’t really mind all that much. Considering the average quality of child actors on TV and film, all the stars here were excellent. The three male friends share a real bond and act like children without being insufferable for those of us of age in the audience. The only adults in the movie are the parents (who are hilariously distracted throughout despite their children biking across the state of Nevada all night), and a good collection of big bad adults that reminded me of the folks that Pee-Wee met while on his Big Adventure. Anyone who ever stayed out past curfew to hang out with friends will get a few nostalgic pangs as the trek to repair Echo’s ship becomes longer and leaks into the morning hours. The movie does seem to run out of things to do before the finish line is in sight, which leads to a scuffle between two of the boys that comes out of nowhere and then leaves just as quickly. Overall though the pacing and charm is more than enough to burn through the film’s short run time.
I was also impressed with the film’s handling of technology. The entire opening before the trio head off to the desert is played off in iPhone text conversations and Skype-like video chatting. At several points, Tuck narrates over himself skipping around the video from a familiar YouTube player, and all traveling by map is done via familiar Google satellite imagery. Little real branding was used, but it felt miles above Peter Parker using Bing or various TV characters using Finder-Spyder. The spy glasses with an inserted camera and the durable Go-Pros that Tuck pulls out of his bag seem to be stretching it a bit, and Munch hacking phone lines like it was a hacking mini-game was downright rediculous, but it’s still a far cry from Weird Science. Other than geeks like me, kids are the only ones who will feel that something is off with off-brand technology, so a round of applause for a kids movie getting it right.
If you go in with the right mindset, Earth to Echo is a decent little family picture, and kids will certainly find something to love in this adventure, perhaps not even minding that Echo’s role amounts to a sitcom cameo. It’s also a much better effort to ape the E.T. formula than other notable failures. From my point of view though, it’s easy to see why Disney dropped this from their lineup. It would be very hard to franchise this film beyond a few toys and plushies of the movie’s mascot, although a quick search of Amazon shows that Relativity Media didn’t even try that. It’s short, to the point, and relatively forgettable in the grand scheme of things, which probably means that it will gain a swift burial during blockbuster season. It’s also worth considering that the last kids movie I liked turned into a box office bomb of historic proportion, so perhaps I’m not in tune with what the young folks like anymore. Still, if you need a movie that wont offend or preach while giving a small dose of nostalgia, Earth to Echo fills that void quite well.