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Earth to Echo

July 2, 2014
Earth to Echo

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams made a fair imitation of early Spielberg with Super 8. I liked it more than most, but there was still something missing. There were all the usual shots and angles to evoke a sense of wonder, but as I’ve gone back to it, something doesn’t hold up.

So now along comes first-time director Dave Green with a script by fellow newcomer Henry Gayden with Earth to Echo. And for all the slick effects and camera tricks they sacrifice by working in the found footage style, they capture what was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes it work, but this is the true descendant of the “realistic” science fiction and fantasy of my childhood, from E.T. to Batteries Not Included to The Goonies.

In fact, the story is lifted almost directly from The Goonies. Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are best friends in an Arizona suburb that’s about to be demolished. They spend their last night together on the adventure of their lives.

They’ve noticed cell phones acting up in their neighborhood, and they realize the glitchy screens are actually showing them a map. That night they take off on their bikes, finding what looks like an old piece of junk at the site. But their phones now indicate a new map, with a new destination. And so they go, point to point through the night, along the way picking up the requisite girl, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), and avoiding the interference of a mysterious group that probably aren’t really construction workers. At each stop the thing jury-rigs a new piece out of what it finds nearby, and when it’s repaired enough it opens to reveal a cute little robotic owlet they dub “Echo”.

There are echoes of Chronicle in the merging of special effects and handheld camerawork here, and the kids are about as realistic as you can expect. Having Tuck, the black kid, take the lead rather than fill out a token niche feels like kind of a big deal. I’m sure that this will play as well to kids now as the movies it draws from did for me back in the ’80s.

And yet, as a movie it falls short. The plotting is thin, literally pointing from one stop to the next with no connective tissue between them besides “Echo says to go here”. The kids may look and sound like real kids, but what they have to say rarely goes beyond archetypes: the brash leader; the socially-inept geek; the adopted kid; the sensible girl. Then again, maybe the same accusations could be leveled at the movies I loved. I’d like to think that, for example, Chunk had layers of texture as well as fat, but is that just because I can only see The Goonies through the lens of my own childhood memories?

Younger viewers will probably love Earth to Echo just the same way, despite the flaws that are deal-breakers for me, and likely for older audiences in general. Besides, all things considered, it’s a lot easier to sit through this than a lot of other stuff you could be taking them to this summer.

Worth It: for kids, definitely.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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