Earth to Echo is a bad cover of Amblin Entertainment’s greatest hits.
The film’s Mad Lib-like plot blatantly steals from such films as The Goonies, E.T. and, to a lesser extent, Super 8, serving only to make audiences wish they were watching those instead.
The Goonies part kicks off the movie, with our lead trio of boys – the nerdy hoarder Munch (because “Chunk” was already taken), adopted Alex with abandonment issues, and quippy (read: obnoxious videographer) Tuck – finding themselves forced out of their homes so Mr. Walsh can make his condos. I mean, so construction crews can build a highway.
When their cell phones start behaving weirdly, the boys set out on an adventure to find the cause. While riding their bikes into the desert, they discover Echo, a cute, sentient piece of alien metal capable of taking apart objects and putting them back together.
Soon, in one of the film’s better, more believable scenes, the boys play a game of 20 questions with Echo and learn they must help the alien get back to his spaceship before the shady government-types posing as construction workers stop them.
From there, the movie pushes along through predictable and logic-be-damned set pieces, driven by problematic lead characters – especially Tuck (played by Brian “Astro” Bradley), whose constant sarcasm comes off less charming and more obnoxious. And it’s OK if you don’t know which of the three boys is our primary “In”; neither does the movie. It only settles on Alex fairly late in the game, because, like Echo, you see, he too is without a home. Get it?
By the time you get to the end, when a massive alien ship rebuilds itself in the middle of the day above a populated neighborhood, you and one of the film’s peripheral players will be the only ones concerned with why no one else just saw that.
Director David Green and writer Henry Gayden get so caught up in making their love letter to the aforementioned films that they lose sight of what made those features so endearing: realistic, likable characters having honest reactions to extraordinary situations.
In fact, the movie can’t even get reactions to (mostly) non-alien situations right. For example, when Echo‘s version of Elle Fanning from Super 8 enters her bedroom, she finds that not only have the three leads broken in, they’ve made a complete mess with the help of the alien chittering away inside their backpack. Instead of panicking, calling for her parents or demanding to know what the hell is going on in a convincing way, she insists on accompanying these three kids with whom she seemingly has no real relationship.
The problem with putting Echo through the found-footage lens is that the format inherently draws a greater level of scrutiny to the choices the characters make, as the audience is at ground level with them. Films like Cloverfield and Chronicle compensate for that by endowing their “ordinary” characters with an emotional consistency in response to the “only in a movie” events that unfold around them. Echo can’t be bothered with such things, as it’s seemingly more concerned with hitting all the movies on its checklist than creating a film worth caring about.
These observations may seem harsh, or nitpicky, for a kids’ movie. However, the film invites that, and continues this summer’s apparent mandate to deliver stories and characters that are easy for audiences to dismiss.
Even in a movie about aliens that can disassemble objects at will, characters have to realistically orient themselves to the craziness in their world — or at the very least, fake it well enough that viewers can’t tell because they’re so invested in the people onscreen. Otherwise, all you get is a new take on a familiar idea that lacks anything worth latching onto outside of your arm rests in frustration.
What you get is a movie like this one.
Earth to Echo opens Wednesday nationwide.