With 2008’s "Cloverfield," J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves showed that the found footage aesthetic—comprised of shaky, you-are-there camerawork and rough cutting and usually relegated to hardcore horror films like the "Paranormal Activity" series and, of course, "The Blair Witch Project"—could also be employed to evoke moments of wide-eyed awe and wonder. Unfortunately, since then, the gee–whiz factor of found footage has been largely ignored, popping up only occasionally (in things like "District 9" or "Chronicle"). Instead, it’s been largely sequestered in the horror movie ghetto. "Earth to Echo," though, hopes to open things up considerably, with a found footage family film aimed at people who were even too young for the rampaging beastie in "Cloverfield." Maybe the most impressive thing about "Earth to Echo" is the way that the filmmakers harness the inherent harshness of the format, turning it into something that’s downright, well, cuddly. If only it were also something more.
Like all found footage movies, it begins by having to explain itself: in this case, it’s the story of what happened exactly one year ago, when a trio of kids discovered something otherworldly just outside their sunny Nevada suburb. (Also, like all found footage movies, it has inherent leaps in logic when it comes to its format; the movie first starts out as a series of YouTube videos but also features narration and overlaid music that sometimes sounds like Explosions in the Sky‘s work on "Friday Night Lights" and sometimes sounds like "Drive" but also includes pop songs too. So…) Tuck Simms (Brian "Astro" Bradley) is the de facto narrator/filmmaker/editor, a kid who is obsessed with videotaping his entire life, even if that life isn’t all that interesting; Alex (Teo Halm), an adorable kid who is saddled with some abandonment issues and lives an uncluttered existence; and Munch (Reese C. Hartwig) is a techy nerd and a self-described "acquired taste."
The kids are BFFs on the brink of disaster: they are all having to vacate their homes due to an imminent domain issue connected with the construction of a new highway bypass. But some strange things have been happening, too, mostly with their cell phones, which began flashing the same weird, squiggly map. The three kids decide to ride out into the desert and see where the map leads, each making up a conflicting story with their parents. When they get out to the desert they discover a small spacecraft with an even smaller alien inside.
This is the alien they dub Echo, who looks like a cross between Bubo, the mechanical owl from the original "Clash of the Titans" and EVE from "WALL-E," and who is desperate to reassemble his spacecraft, which turns out to be the key to a much larger ship that is buried underneath the kids’ homes, and return to his outer space home. A lot of the movie is the kids interacting with this cute little creature and eventually riding their bikes all around creation to find the pieces that Echo searching for. Eventually Emma, a fellow classmate played by Ella Wahlestedt, joins them, insisting that she tag along on the adventure. (There’s actually some interesting gender exploration here, since she is introduced via a fight with her parents where she keeps telling them that she doesn’t want to be a debutante. But that’s pretty much the extent of it.) Of course the kids run into some shadowy government officials who threaten them (and Echo) but this is a kids’ movie… and everything works out in the end. Um, spoiler alert.
If the concept of kids on bikes, a friendly alien visitor who wants to return home, moody suburban settings that take on an uncanny hue and government officials who seem more sinister just because they’re adults sounds familiar, that’s because at every turn "Earth to Echo" strains, with all its might, to evoke Steven Spielberg‘s immortal "E.T." (With his bulging, expressive eyes, Echo even looks like E.T.) The problem is that the found footage conceit is constantly sabotaging what is otherwise pretty solid storytelling, were it not for the requirements of characters having to look into the camera constantly and having to explain why they’re doing everything, while every camera and angle has to be justified by those same on-screen characters (the spy glasses! My GoPro!) The let’s-find-all-the-missing-pieces plot mechanics also feels perfunctory and tired and nothing really makes much sense, even with the qualifier of hey, it’s only a kids’ movie. That might be true, but there have been plenty of excellent kids’ movies about children forming a bond with an otherworldly creature, and it’s no coincidence the movie also tries to bring to mind fond memories of "The Iron Giant," "Lilo & Stitch" and Abrams’ own (far superior) "Super 8."
It also hurts that the behind-the-scenes drama of "Earth to Echo" is far more suspenseful and involving than what wound up on screen. The movie was originally simply called "Echo" (and the title card at the beginning of the movie bears this out) and was produced, in full, by Disney. Only after the movie was finished, with completed visual effects and music, did the studio deem that it was just "too small" for the company, a leftover from the Dick Cook era that would be difficult to market and potentially unprofitable. The movie was then sold, wholesale, to Relativity, who then reshot some things and redid some of the visual effects. (You can tell, too—the film’s coda features footage of the kids where they appear noticeably older.) What’s so ironic is that the movie that was too small for Disney now has a primo July 4th weekend spot.
All in all, "Earth to Echo" is passable family entertainment, neither unforgettable nor particularly bad. The kid actors are fairly convincing, even though they too seem to be under the strain of the found footage parameters (since, unlike in traditional narrative features, there’s no way to "cut around" them), and the little robot is pretty cute. The fact that director Dave Green was able to shape a genre as inherently cold and gritty as found footage and turn it into something that caused my audience to audibly gasp and "awww," is a testament to his talents as a filmmaker. With the right script and free of aesthetic limitations, he could be a director that could attempt something in the spirit of a Steven Spielberg classic… and actually succeed. [C+]