‘Earth to Echo’ fails to connect

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Earth to Echo
Written by Henry Gayden
Directed by Dave Green
USA, 2014 

The new children’s film, Earth to Echo, wants to be a Millennial version of E.T., but it sacrifices emotion in favor of realism.  The end result is a one-dimensional robot that will disappoint younger children, and a repetitive action story that will bore older kids.  Its heart may be in the right place but there’s just not enough imagination or excitement to clear this movie for launch.

Earth to Echo’s premise is rooted in the two predominating traits of pre-adolescent boys; insecurity and recklessness.  Insecurity plagues our three heroes, Tuck (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig), as a looming construction project threatens to uproot their entire town and separate them forever.  When the three boys decipher a map-like signal embedded in their cellphones, it provides the perfect excuse for reckless rebellion against the indiscriminate forces tearing them apart.  In their last night together, they will challenge their friendship, uncover a dangerous conspiracy and find an adorable alien in search of his spaceship.

The first questionable decision made by director, Dave Green, and writer, Henry Gayden, is using the first-person “found footage” perspective (audiences averse to the ‘shaky-cam’ should have their Dramamine onboard before entering the theater).  As with other films employing this gimmick, it fails to enhance any sense of urgency or emotional connection to the characters.  The filmmakers are to be commended, however, for so thoroughly incorporating the first-person perspective into their narrative.  These kids are so tech savvy, it’s easy to believe they could cover all the camera angles.  There aren’t any distracting moments when you find yourself wondering, “Who the hell is holding the camera?”  It’s an impressive technical achievement, though it adds absolutely nothing to the story.

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The lack of emotional involvement with the story is less a matter of perspective, however, and more about the poor choice of narrator.  In Tuck, the filmmakers have chosen not only the least interesting character to be our guide, but the only character without a story arc.  Alex, shipped from foster home to foster home, has some serious abandonment issues that mesh nicely with the story’s main plotline.  Munch is a delightful creation, full of tics and idiosyncrasies that will remind some adults of Chunk from The Goonies.  Tuck, in comparison, is just a blank slate whose only purpose is to prod the insecurities of the other two boys and keep the plot moving forward.  It’s a crippling choice from which the movie never recovers.

Another crushing blow is that the alien, Echo, has absolutely no personality.  More to the point, Echo is barely in his own movie.  His abilities and quirks are never defined, which gives us no opportunity to grow attached to him.  The boys are immediately able to communicate with Echo (“One beep is for ‘yes’ and two beeps are for ‘no.’”), effectively eliminating a prime source for mystery or humor.  There is no magical sense of wonder; Echo is just a cute little robot who needs help reassembling the key to his stranded spaceship.  He was clearly designed with younger viewers in mind, but he’s barely in the movie long enough to hold their attention.  Older kids are likely to find Echo childish and boring.  Sure, wacky things happen whenever our heroes acquire a new piece of the key, but the same wacky things happen over and over and over again.  There is a serious lack of imagination and enchantment surrounding Echo that’s going to leave children of all ages disappointed.

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More troubling, still, is what the kids must do to acquire new pieces of the key.  Almost all of their adventures involve some sort of criminal enterprise, particularly breaking-and-entering.  While this isn’t uncommon to children’s caper movies, parents should be aware that it adds a decidedly serious tone to what’s being billed as a lighthearted sci-fi actioner.  The villainous scientist, too, Dr. Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford) is probably too creepy and menacing for younger viewers.  Unlike the misguided scientists from E.T., who only want to study the alien, these scientists want to destroy Echo and his spacecraft.  Larceny and imminent destruction might add some artificial tension to the story, but without any real emotional attachment to the characters (including Echo), it’s more likely to leave audiences feeling confused rather than scared.

Ultimately, Earth to Echo wants to be an inspirational story about friendship and courage, but it fails to embrace the earnest sentimentality that made E.T. such an enduring classic.  It panders to younger viewers with a Happy Meal robot, while trying to keep things darker and more cynical for the older kids.  The result is a disappointing hodgepodge that leaves you surprisingly cold.  It seems there’s a very good reason why Stand by Me didn’t feature a lovable alien.

— J.R. Kinnard

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