The wave of 1980s nostalgia seems utterly unstoppable, but despite ongoing efforts to exploit and perpetuate brands like Transformers, G.I. Joe and The Smurfs, none of this recent crop seems to capture the spirit of their original inspiration. Even J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 – a big, glossy homage to everything Spielbergian (and Dante-esque) – fell mostly flat, thanks to Abrams’ stuffy resolve to treat the films we grew up with as gospel, instead of as a jumping off point for something fun and exciting.
Enter Earth to Echo, a film that dares to simply rip off classic films like Monster Squad and The Explorers, very much in the same way that Monster Squad and The Explorers ripped off The Goonies and E.T. Dave Green’s found footage sci-fi film for kids takes a familiar framework and adds believable characters and fun ideas which make all the old tropes feel new again. It’s a great little adventure that’s clever and dramatic enough to appeal to adults, not just children, although kids are going to love it. It’s been a long time since a live-action genre movie tried to appeal directly towards a child’s experience with this much irresponsible sincerity. Earth to Echo is the movie equivalent of that cool uncle who let you watch R-rated movies and stay up till 1am.
Earth to Echo stars Teo Halm, Brian Bradley and Reese Hartwig as a trio of pre-teen friends whose neighborhood has been scheduled for demolition. But before they can move, their cell phones begin to wig out, and they soon realize that the strange images on their screens are a treasure map that leads out into the desert, where they find an alien device that looks like a little robot owl, and which needs their assistance in more ways than one. “Echo,” as they soon name him, uses their camera phones to see (a smart way to keep the found footage concept alive throughout the entire film), and needs their help to rebuild himself and find a way home.
A familiar sort of tale, but one played out by a cast of atypically likable, flawed young characters played by atypically likable, impeccable young actors. Each child in Earth to Echo is given a distinctive personality and a point of view that drives them forward, and gets in their way, and ultimately evolves over the course of the film. The cowardly Munch (Hartwig) turns hero at a hilariously unexpected moment. The foster child Alex (Halm) is almost obsessively invested in Echo’s journey home because of his own personal baggage. The documentarian Tuck (Bradley) may be more interested in observing the action than actually getting involved when things get serious. These kids aren’t plot points, they’re complete human beings.
Plus, the way Earth to Echo encourages them to break all the rules in order to do the right thing is met with healthy skepticism and honest considerations about where their responsibilities really lie. Curfews will be broken, parties will be gatecrashed, cars will be driven without a license, and although it’s all very, very fun it’s all serious business. Involving, suspenseful and dramatically satisfying. Earth to Echo understands that kids are kids, and as such they want to be teenagers, but in their heart of hearts there’s an innocence that belies their every act of rebellion, and a genuine need to do bad for all the right reasons that doesn’t go unrecognized.
And although Earth to Echo is a found footage movie from beginning to end, Dave Green wisely treats the approach as just another plot point, not an excuse for shoddy storytelling. Earth to Echo is impressively cinematic, with lush cinematography bolstering its superbly structured story and cast of charming characters. For once, a film’s familiarity breeds genuine appreciation: Earth to Echo is a fine addition to the kids sci-fi/fantasy genre, taking something old and retrofitting it into something slightly new, and absolutely wonderful.