Your enjoyment of Earth To Echo will depend on how much you want to see a classic Spielberg family film recreated beat-for-beat. I personally dug the hell out of it.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
That headline is not a misnomer or over-simplification, just so you’re aware. Earth To Echo is a beat-for-beat recreation of one of those “young kids band together and go off on an adventure” family movies that used to be so prominent in the 80s and early 90s. Think of a feature or plot beat from any of them and I can practically guarantee you that it showed up here at some point or another. A close group of young boys consisting of their leader (who thinks he’s a bit of a charmer and has a personal crusade), the cool one (who is deeply insecure about people moving away) and the slightly eccentric one (who is prone to panicking under pressure)? Check. The group is about to be broken up due to outside circumstances dictating that they all move away from one another? Check. Strange goings on are happening in the area and, on their last night together, the trio decide to investigate behind their parents’ backs? Check. They discover a ridiculously cute alien who crash-landed on Earth and just wants to get home? Big check. The group ends up being joined by a girl who happens to enjoy unusual things, has to basically force her way into the group and may end up hitting it off with one of them? Check-ity- check check. Everyone involved discovers that the people forcing them to move away may actually be connected to and hunting for the ridiculously cute alien? Mr Check, of Checkingsville, Illinois, you’d better chiggidy-check yourself before you wriggidy-wreck yourself!
In blunt terms, if Amblin Entertainment was in any way responsible for it, Earth To Echo blatantly steals from it at some point or another during its run time. I can practically guarantee that you will have seen this movie multiple times before and, inarguably, done better. It brings one thing to the table, the found-footage framework, that, to my knowledge, has not been done by any one of these films beforehand. Otherwise, it’s the kind of homage where the only aim was to recreate one of the films it wants to homage. This should be a huge knock against the film and, in a way, it still is. And yet, Earth To Echo worked for me. It worked near-totally.
Now, again, don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that this film does nothing new and has little depth or anything to say besides “Hey! Remember those family movies from the 80s? Weren’t they awesome? Gee, I wish they’d make ‘em like that nowadays.” But the film is so good at that homage and its filmmakers are so good at what they do and they clearly have so much genuine love for the genre they wish to be, that my cynicism was overwhelmed and the film just swept me away. A much less talented filmmaker would have coldly replicated the style of classics like E.T. and The Goonies for cheap sympathy pops, but director Dave Green and the screenplay (provided by Henry Gayden) invest their hearts into the thing. They have real love for this style and it washes through every facet of the film’s production, especially its tone which is dead on. This is a light, heart-filled, optimistic and just plain feel-good film; there is not one bad bone in its entire being which made it much easier for me to lose myself in proceedings.
And that heart manifests itself everywhere. In the trio of leads (Teo Halm plays the cool kid, Brian “Astro” Bradley plays the group leader, Reese C. Hartwig plays the eccentric one) who are all excellent, striking up lightning chemistry with one another and are so believable in their respective roles that one could be forgiven for thinking that they all were close friends way before filming even began. In the titular alien, Echo, who is utterly adorable and whose fate I cared rigidly about, even though his personality is just that he’s utterly adorable and that the adults hunting him are clearly bad news. In the tinge of melancholy that hangs over proceedings, playing on the loss of friendships and abandonment issues theme enough to create the illusion of full-on depth but not enough to make it feel like I was being bashed over the head with it. In the score by Joseph Trapanese, which is ripped straight from that kind of era but overlaid with minor key reverb guitars for that 2010s version of wistful forgotten youth-invoking. It all feels sincere and that makes the entire film feel like a genuine throwback to that bygone era, and a very nice change of pace from most family films currently on the market, instead of a cynical invocation for the end purpose of nostalgia dollars.
As for the one thing that it does that isn’t rip off from the 80s, the found-footage, Earth To Echo plays very fast-and-loose with the concept. And I mean very fast and loose. Even though everyone knows that found-footage found its logical end point with that bit in Chronicle where Andrew uses his mind to levitate the camera and keep it steady, Earth To Echo tries its own stab at spicing up proceedings by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it. The film is presented like it’s a film that Tuck, the group’s leader, has pieced together from footage on various cameras a year after proceedings, although that doesn’t really explain the frequent usage of footage taken from the viewpoint of Echo itself. In any case, in addition to your standard camera holding, there are cameras mounted on bikes, spy glasses, shots from the viewpoint of Echo itself, webcam conversations, screen-recordings of computers, YouTube progress bars, Google Maps indicators of where the cast are headed, overlays on the environment provided by Echo’s analysis, and the occasional visual distortion because everyone knows that the audience won’t know that situation has gotten serious until the camera gets hurt.
Assuming one doesn’t think about it too much, it actually kinda works. It creates a nice fast-paced editing style that keeps things moving at a good clip. Plus, some moments are rather inspired. The aforementioned screen-recording of a three-way webcam conversation has a bit where Tuck, in trying to rally Alex and Munch into joining him on the adventure, cues up the Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves overture and we actually see him opening it up in iTunes. There’s also a bit where Emma, the girl who tags along, keeps hogging Echo and getting obsessive in finding out his history and Tuck, bored of the section, takes the clip and actually trashes it before we cut back to the film. Again, assuming that one doesn’t think about how it all actually pieces together into this coherent film made by one of its protagonists that we are supposedly watching, it all actually works and they offer up quick little gags at the medium’s expense. I will admit that there were many times where my brain was questioning how it all fit together, though, so how much it bugs you will depend on your tolerance for this stuff.
Although I’m not docking the film points for its relentless “homaging” to E.T. and The Goonies, I do still have one problem with it that prevents it from being one of my favourite films of the year so far and that problem is Emma, the lone girl. She joins in on proceedings about halfway through but, in notable contrast to the three boys, she doesn’t really have a character. There’s a brief scene that goes on in the background at one point of her complaining how she’s not going to be some “prom princess” or something, and during the rest of the film she gets very occasional scenes where it seems like her and Alex are hitting it off, but that’s about it. Her character trait is just The Girl and, again in contrast to our three boy leads, I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything about her or what makes her tick. There’s also that aforementioned clip trashing scene and some occasional bits where some of the boys rag on her seemingly just for being a girl which creates a Boy’s Club feel to proceedings that’s a little jarring, considering how nice the rest of the film is to everyone. Her actress, Ella Wahlestedt (who I mistook for Molly Quinn for at least a good 10 minutes), tries forcing in some raw blunt charisma to try and make up for it, but it can only go so far when you’re up against the challenge of having no character to play. It’s a shame because the other three leads are so strongly written and it makes her come off like an afterthought.
So, once again, your enjoyment of Earth To Echo is going to be dictated primarily by how much you fancy watching “Not Goonies”. As you may be able to gather, I wasn’t much bothered by the fact that it has nothing new to bring to that table. Sure, it’s not as good as E.T. or The Goonies or the like, but it has something that is strangely lacking from a lot of movies nowadays, not just family ones: heart. This is a film with love pouring out of every seam, with a trio of well-drawn lead characters excellently performed, with a melancholy yet kind-hearted mood dictating the show, and with an adorable little alien. It’s a throwback of the best kind, the one that makes you walk out of the cinema and wistfully sigh “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” And maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for that kind of emotion-filled cinema, or maybe it’s because this Summer season has been near-relentlessly miserable and I’ll take anything that is in the slightest bit different from the current norm of film releases, but that is exactly what I did upon exiting the screen. I dug the hell out of it and, depending on if you can get past your possible hang-ups, you may too.