Review: ‘Earth To Echo’ is a sweet small scale spin on the classic ‘E.T.’ formula

One of the hardest things about the way this generation of filmmakers has internalized the movies that inspired them is that watching their movies can sometimes feel like you're reading a laundry list of the things that they saw when they were younger, rather than watching something where all of those influences have crystallized into something new.

“Earth To Echo” could accurately be described as a “found-footage” riff on “Explorers” and “E.T.”, and that description would certainly impart something of the film to someone. But the thing that “Earth To Echo” most accurately reflects from the best of the '80s movies that continue to linger with viewers, even 30 years after many of them first hit theaters, is that sense of something genuine about the kids. When I look at “E.T.”, the first thing that strikes me as remarkable is just how right Spielberg got all of the kids in the film. Not just Elliott and Gertie and Michael, but all the kids in that film felt like actual kids who I knew at the time, my friends or the brothers and sisters of my friends, both older and younger. That was one of the huge appeals of Spielberg's early work, that rowdy sense of reality spilling out of the edges of the frame. When you watch the scenes in “Close Encounters” where it's just Roy Neary and his kids at home, there is nothing about those scenes that feels conventionally written. Instead, it's like Spielberg set up a camera in a real house and just captured the sort of chaos that defines family life. It's true of “Jaws,” it's true of “Sugarland Express,” it's true of “Poltergeist,” and in its best moments, it is true of “Earth To Echo.”

Directed by Dave Green and written by Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay, “Earth To Echo” tells the story of three friends who are basically holding each other afloat as they make their way through those awkward years. Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are grappling with the idea that they're going to have to move away from each other just as they are realizing just how hard it's going to be to ever find friends who understand and accept them in the same way. The reason they're all moving away at the same time is because their neighborhood has been marked for demolition as part of the construction of a new freeway. They don't understand how that could happen, how it's fair that the government can just sweep in and force them all to change their lives. They are counting down their last days together, and Tuck is shooting every minute they have on video. It's a defense mechanism, more than anything. It's part of who he is, and it also makes it easier not to really feel the impending separation.

Something happens, though, leading the three friends onto a memorable overnight adventure that will, as I said earlier, unfold with a certain familiarity to fans of “E.T.” or Joe Dante's never-quite-finished-but-damn-good “Explorers.” The three friends follow a signal that turns out to be a map that turns out to be actively leading them somewhere for something, and the entire time, the cameras are rolling and oh, yes, did I mention that “Earth To Echo” is a…

… well, what are we going to keep calling these movies? I don't like “found footage” because I think that's a terms that has been misused anyway. I like “first person.” I think it's a trick no matter how you do it, and so it becomes about how well you can build it as a narrative and a story and something believable and interesting. “Earth To Echo” is a little big big and broad, but that's also part of its charm. Jason Gray-Stanford plays a scientist bad guy, and he's really good at being the recurrent face of doom over the course of the film. Elia Wahlestedt does sharp work as a young girl who helps the trio in their effort to help Echo.

And what is Echo? Well, he's  a special effect, so how you feel about the film will largely depend on how much you buy into him as a character. As much as that's Dave Green, it's also the kids, and it's the work of cinematographer Maxime Alexande. It's the work by Shade VFX and Prime Focus and BaseFX. I feel like they pull it off for the most part. Echo is a weird little thing, but wildly powerful, and he has a focus that doesn't reveal itself at first. The technical sophistication of the film is impressive across the board.

As Echo's plan unfolds, it becomes clear what his agenda is, and the film's structure, deceptively loose at first, becomes clear as the film winds up. He's both incredibly selfish and also very kind and considerate. He gives the kids something to focus on other than being sad, and the kids are really quite sweet. There's some stuff in a bar, some stuff with the government, and then some stuff as the kids help Echo get what he wants.

“Earth To Echo” is a fun, family-safe film, but not in a cloying or pre-packaged way. There are enough rough edges to the way it's told that it's obvious that the filmmakers care. These are good kids. This is a sadly modem little story with one things about it that is completely and utterly fantastic.

In taking that approach, it ends up telling a sweet small-scale story about friendship and about being afraid of losing your best friends.

“Earth To Echo” opens July 2, 2014.