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Having a friend light-years away taught us that distance is just a state of mind.

Movie

Earth to Echo
(2014)

 

Explorers meets E.T. meets Chronicle meets the mechanical owl from the Ray Harryhausen Clash of the TitansEarth to Echo is nothing if not derivative, but Dave Green’s feature debut is nevertheless reasonably engaging in spite of itself. The only one of the above influences that really works against it (complaining that a movie is like E.T. is complaining that archetypal stories get told) is the found footage conceit. It’s wholly a gimmick, and one the kids appear to have augmented with Pro Tools, adding a cloyingly instructive voiceover (in case the youngsters are unable to get the message) and an unnecessary score that attempts to evoke wide-eyed wonderment.

The voiceover suggests another ’80s influence, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, playing into the nostalgic hue of a last momentous summer spent together before childhood friends go their separate ways. Unfortunately, the gravitas of Richard Dreyfus (as the grown-up Wil Wheaton) is absent here, even by equivalence, replaced by Tuck’s video narrative. Astro (how long before he goes back to plain old Brian Bradley?) played Liam Neeson’s impossibly smart street kid sidekick in A Walk Among the Tombstones, and his character is similarly cocksure here. His commentary is replete with unearned wisdom. It’s as problematic as the found footage (complete with far too many “authentic” recording freezes and recording cuts), such that it’s really down to screenwriter Henry Gayden borrowing liberally from strong sources that renders the picture passable.

The young leads offer variable performances, required to be naturalistic but lacking the range to pull this off. None of the young actors are actually bad, but only Ella Wahlestedt as Emma, the honorary girl and latecomer to the group, has the air of a confident performer. Reese Hartwig is Munch, nominally the oddball science geek (the River Phoenix character from Explorers rather than the pugilist of Stand by Me) but is really just a touch quirky. He’s also abandoned the plot in favour of Alex (Teo Halm). Halm is the least impressive, the foster kid given hang-ups about being left alone in the least subtle of ways.

The boys’ neighbourhood, Mulberry Woods, is due to be demolished to service the construction of a highway. It’s the final week before their enforced move and electronic signals playing havoc with residents. Munch tracks the signal (much as Phoenix led the way with deductions in Explorers) to a spot in the desert where they discover a cute little robot that just wants to get home (so, E.T.). To facilitate this, they must evade government agents who want to get their hands on Echo (as they christen him). So, E.T. again. Also E.T. again, the not-quite The Creation of Adam-inspired poster.

The borrowing from Chronicle is most obvious in the video footage (although that film did it so well one forgot about it for the most part), but also surfaces in the underground spaceship of the third act. It’s curious that so many filmmakers choose found footage as a stylistic and narrative form, since it so rarely inspired or appropriate. One can only guess it’s partly down to insecurity on their part. If a film is “supposed” to look scrappy and amateurish at least the director can’t be accused of making a hash of things. Dave Green has secured the gig on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, so something must have impressed someone (either that or, equally likely, it is some form of punishment on those who liked the first instalment). There’s no good reason for its presence in Earth to Echo, and it would be a better movie without it.

Echo is expectedly adorable, with an effectively chirrupy sound design that elicits oohs and aahs. He’s overtly owl-like, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Archimedes in the 1981 Clash of the Titans (who was that film’s nod to R2D2), but curiously he isn’t an especially prominent character. Following the initial discovery, there is much chasing about and pursuing of goals (the picture clocks in at a crisp eighty minutes, shorn of credits) but not so much in the way of lovable hijinks. The effects are reasonable for the limited budget, which may explain the robot’s limited screen time (Echo’s dismantling and reconstruction of an oncoming truck is more effective for the idea than the realisation).

There are a few amusing moments that suggest this could have been quicker and wittier with a bit more care. Munch’s offers a disarming compliment to the mystified proprietor of a pawn shop (“Excuse me, sir, you have a very very lovely shop”) and his response on being asked “What was that?” as musical instruments on display start sounding off is the literal “F sharp?” There’s also a scene in a bar that begins well but can’t sustain itself.

One’s enjoyment of this picture will chiefly largely depend on tolerance levels for copious handheld camera and also kids being let loose to act like kids. Fortunately, the latter never devolves into a Goonies-esque display of incessant shouting and screaming – although it gets close on occasion – but you’d be forgiven for giving up during the first ten minutes as the cumulative factors quickly prove wearing. Perhaps the makers realised that, without the gimmick, the movie would look like even more of an ’80s homage than Super 8 (which is saying something), but that isn’t an especially good reason for it. Earth to Echo is well meaning and inoffensive, but it suffers by comparison with its influences. It lacks either the arch-manipulation of Spielberg’s E.T. (being told that best friends will always be together no matter where they are in the universe is trite rather than sincere, or even ’berg-ishly treacly) or the out-of-leftfield anarchy that explodes from Dante’s Explorers.

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