There’s a clear innocence about the family cinema of previous generations that seems to have been lost in the current crop of movies. In older films, families work together, albeit with some struggles, and children are pleasant and get along pretty well with each other. It’s not all peaches and cream, of course, because there’s some dramatic tension needed to propel the story forward (bad parenting in Mary Poppins, a child who has to recognize that her fill-in parents love her in The Wizard of Oz, and the wave of dysfunctional families in the Disney oeuvre) but still, there’s always a happy, wish fulfillment ending.
Then there are the classic 80’s family films that have an entirely different sensibility about them, most notably E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies. Both classics, and while this critic must admit he’s never liked E.T., there’s something about the sarcastic vibe of The Goonies that makes it one of the very best films about childhood from the perspective of the child. The dialog in particular is brilliant at capturing that deep, awkward love children have for their friends, even as they razz each other.
Earth to Echo is a clear descendant of these two 80’s films, with a bit of the enjoyable, but flawed, 2011 film Super 8 added to the mix [read my review of Super 8]. And it’s great fun, even if there’s a bit too much found footage for some tastes.
The biggest problem with Earth to Echo is that I felt it was too intense for the pre-tween set (I wouldn’t take my 10yo daughter to see it, for example, though I know my 14yo would love it), though, to be fair, I only recently let her see The Goonies and she was alarmed by some of the chase and fight scenes.
In a clear homage to Spielberg’s E.T. suburbs, Earth to Echo is built around a trio of buddies, Tuck (Brian Bradley), Munch (Reese Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm). They’re nerdy archetypes, the geek, the brain and the overly-confident boy, and they have the comfortable friendship of boys who have known each other through many adventures. Their neighborhood is poised to be demolished for a highway bypass (shades of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?), forcing them all to move apart, and the adventure takes place on their last night together, a clear nod to The Goonies.
Their phones start acting weird, and when they realize that it’s a map to a spot out in the surrounding desert, they decide to lie to their parents about a final sleepover and jump on their bikes to pedal the few miles out to the location. Once there, they find a mysterious piece of wreckage that turns out to be a small part of a spaceship, complete with a cute, tiny little alien who looks more like a baby owl than anything else. Lacking a name, they call him Echo inspired by his ability to mimic sounds.
Echo has crash-landed on Earth and while he has some amazing powers, he needs their help to find and assemble all the parts needed to build a new spaceship, which requires them to go to various places (where much of the film’s tension comes from). Meanwhile, the “highway workers” turn out to be a mysterious government agency that is aware of the alien and seek to abduct and experiment on him.
The main plot points are the intermingling of their adventures helping out Echo, trying to avoid the omnipresent government agents, overlaid with the poignancy of these three inseparable pals on their last night together. Add to the mix the female object of their mutual affection, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who ends up being the fourth gang member as a more mature teen relationship blossoms with her and Tuck as the night proceeds.
There’s a lot I liked about Earth to Echo and more than once I was transfixed, grinning and enjoying the dialog, the scene, and the non-stop homage to the 80’s family films. The biggest problem with the movie, however, is that it’s too muddled in terms of its target audience. The found-footage technique is passé and annoying to adult viewers (read the other critics to see what I mean) and the tension level is more appropriate for teens than the younger set. Echo is a bit too cute to appeal to teen boys, however, in an age where our children are more jaded. Is it a children’s movie? Is it a movie for teens? It’s hard to say.
I would recommend it for more mature children able to appreciate and enjoy the various elements of Earth to Echo, however, and I definitely enjoyed it as a throwback to the great era of family movies. I’d like to see more of these films in the cinema, more options for bringing all of my children along for an afternoon at the movies.