It’s tempting to go with the glass-half-full interpretation of “Earth to Echo:”
“Earth to Echo” is a big-hearted, family-friendly movie about a cute little alien who gets stranded on Earth and enlists some local kids to help him get home.
Unfortunately, this interpretation will leave a lot of audiences asking, “Isn’t that the same plot as ‘E.T.?’” And this leads to a glass-half-empty interpretation that feels a bit more accurate:
“Earth to Echo” is a watered-down “E.T.” knockoff with lots and lots of handheld camera work.
Actually, “Earth to Echo” is more like nine parts “E.T.” and one part “Goonies.” The plot is built around a trio of preteen boys whose families are being forced out of their homes to make way for a new highway. Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley) is the leader and aspiring filmmaker, obsessed with documenting every moment of their daily escapades in the hopes of getting more YouTube hits. Alex (Teo Halm) is the brooder, a foster kid with a chip on his shoulder. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the oddball, tech-savvy enough to make Tuck feel like a wannabe geek.
One day, the boys’ cellphones start going crazy, and eventually they trace the interference out into the Nevada desert, where they meet Echo. Echo is a tiny robot/alien who crash-landed on Earth and needs help to get home.
To give the film a current feel (which likely will feel very dated in a few years), the story is told from the perspective of the boys’ various electronics and toys: a handheld video camera, a pair of eyeglasses that shoot video, various GoPro cameras mounted on dirt bikes, etc. The style gives the film an immediate, documentary feel but poses a significant challenge for audiences with a weakness for that kind of constant motion.
Along the way, Echo gets the boys into a variety of predicaments that suggest the local highway project may just be an elaborate smokescreen. On more than one occasion, they encounter some mysterious construction workers who seem awfully interested in Echo. Along the way, they run into Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a popular girl from school who, amusingly, manages to rattle our heroes a lot more than the bad guys.
The parallels to 1982's “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” might be a benefit if they didn’t make “Earth to Echo’s” shortcomings so obvious. The film has a sweet moment or two, but director Dave Green’s product lacks the sweeping charm and innocence of Steven Spielberg’s early work. “Earth to Echo” splits its character development among three protagonists, rather than focusing on the depth of a single human-alien friendship. It helps that the boys are united in feeling displaced from their homes, but this sentiment pales in comparison to the shadow of divorce that hung over “E.T.’s” protagonist Elliot.
The worst shortcoming of all may be the lack of a soaring John Williams soundtrack. As time goes on, you get the feeling that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would be remembered far differently if they didn’t have the Boston Pops pro at the musical helm. Green should be jealous; a little more atmosphere could have gone a long way here, though it wouldn’t have fixed some of the chaotic breakdown issues that mar the film’s third act.
Still, if you aren’t concerned with the “E.T.” comparisons and are just looking for something to see at the theater with all the kids, “Earth to Echo” will do the job a lot better than most of today’s nonanimated options. And you could argue that there’s never anything wrong with enjoying a glass that’s only half full. But do you really want to pay full ticket price for it?
“Earth to Echo” is rated PG for action violence, vulgarity and some frightening moments.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.