In a market over-saturated with cynical, cash-grabbing products directed at young children it’s nice to see a genuine, heartfelt attempt to recapture the sense of wonder and awe so prevalent in the blockbusters of the past generation. However, in attempting to recall the magic of movies like The Goonies and most obviously E.T, Earth to Echo condemns itself to comparisons which it will always come out of as the lesser film. It’s not that Echo is bad, but there is a constant and active effort to remind you of better films which really damages it.
Even the film’s premise should be incredibly familiar to anyone who has watched any of it’s obvious inspirations. Three pre-teen friends prepare to move apart as their residential area is to be paved over to make way for a new road. On their last night together, the gang follow mysterious signals on their phones. They are lead to the nearby desert, where they find the titular Echo, a small and friendly alien in need of assistance. The friends then decide that before parting ways, they will embark on an adventure to help Echo get back home.
Naturally there is nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, as long as you can measure up to them to an extent. J.J Abrams’ vastly superior Super 8 (2011) very similarly approached this same nostalgic territory, but managed to do so in a way that enhanced the film rather than impaired it. Echo, on the other hand, really struggles to ever come close to its predecessors, the inherent charm and magic that Spielberg was able to bring to E.T isn’t quite here. In fact, Earth to Echo feels rather slight and insubstantial. The great adventure we’re supposed to witness amounts to little more than riding bikes from A to B for the majority of the film. The lack of screen-time for Echo himself (who is thankfully quite cute and appealing) also means that it’s harder to form an emotional bond with him than it is with E.T.
The biggest problem weighing Earth to Echo down though, is the needless found-footage aesthetic which only grates as the film goes on. At first, it’s used quite cleverly to introduce us to the central characters through their YouTube uploads, but once the adventure starts it begins to feel rather forced and strained. The numerous references to certain modern devices and applications additionally make Earth to Echo feel instantly dated, coming across a bit like an uninformed adult’s understanding of how modern technology works.
What saves the film is its cast. The lead kids are charming enough (special mention has to go to Reese Hartwig as Munch who avoids falling into the usual “funny-chubby-kid” stereotype common to this type of films) and have a believable group dynamic. Not only that, but they feel like real children rather than children acting like how films seem to think kids behave. Oddly enough, whenever the film forgets about its sci-fi convictions it actually works quite well as a coming-of-age story and a sentimental look back at childhood friendships. Hence the first act promises a much more engaging story than the rest is able to deliver.
Earth to Echo is far from a bad film, it’s actually fairly good. Yet, it shoots itself in the foot through its allusions to films that are frankly miles greater. Its heart is in the right place though. It really does try to deliver something more sincere for its audience than they’re used to getting nowadays and it’s hard to be too harsh on a film that clearly had a lot of love and affection poured into it. But Super 8 did all this first – and better.
Earth to Echo (2014), directed by Dave Green, is distributed in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, Certificate PG. Watch the trailer below: