Given the abundance of sequels and remakes being served up these days, I'm always pleased to see something original work its way into the mix. Most of the time, anyway. Technically, Earth to Echo qualifies as an “original” film, but it's one of the most shamelessly derivative films I've seen in recent years. It wants so badly to be the next E.T. that it simply copies and pastes that film's plot, delivering a movie in which every single story beat can be predicted well in advance. That isn't the only the film it mimics. Speaking to a group of kids at a press screening, producer Andrew Panay said, “I grew up watching The Goonies, Stand By Me. Don't you think it's weird that your generation hasn't had a Goonies to talk to you? I thought it was about time you kids had the same experience us adults have had.” The real problem is that The Goonies and Stand By Me weren't blatantly attempting to be the next version of something that had previously existed. They were trying to tell unique stories that they thought would resonate with younger viewers. Earth to Echo doesn't have any personality of its own. It's the cinematic equivalent of one of those pieces of commercial music designed to sound like a familiar hit song, but altering just enough notes to prevent legal complications.
Our story centers on three kids: Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Astro) and Munch (Reese Hartwig). The kids have discovered a location in their town which causes their cell phones to display funny images. One of them believes the images may actually form a map, and the kids are determine to figure out where it leads. One night, they go on a long bike ride in the hopes that the map will lead them to something exciting. It does: in the middle of the desert, they discover an ailing little alien who understands English but can only communicate using a series of beeps. The kids dub the alien “Echo,” and quickly come to learn that he's hoping to find a way to return to his home planet. Unfortunately, some sinister government agents are aware of the alien's existence and would like nothing more than to capture Echo and bring him in for testing.
All of this plays out pretty much exactly as you would expect it to, because you've seen all of this before in other movies (again, primarily E.T.). It's possible to pay homage to movies you love while still doing your own thing (look at Monster House and Super 8 for more successful examples in this particular category), but Earth to Echo just doesn't have its own thing. Well, that's not entirely true: it's a found-footage film, but that's more of an annoyance than an attribute. The film looks like it was shot by hyperactive 12-year-olds, and the fact that it's supposed to look that way isn't much of a comfort. As usual, the “we're filming a documentary” gimmick feels pretty forced. As in most of these cases, it feels like the film is primarily using the format to hide its budget limitations.
As for Echo himself, well... he's kinda boring, honestly. The alien looks like a glorified happy meal toy, but it was evidently pretty expensive to bring him to life, as he's offscreen for the majority of the film's running time (usually stuffed in a backpack). He's cute, I guess, but he doesn't have any memorable qualities. He's just a beeping, bleeping, whimpering little plot device who does something magical every time the script requires him to.
Despite the 89-minute running, the movie feels long. There's a lot of padding, including two third-act montages showing clips of all the things that happened earlier in the movie. The kids are okay, but sometimes struggle to make their line readings convincing. The script tosses a girl (Ella Wahlestedt) into the mix about halfway through, but doesn't give her much of anything to do. The grown-ups are consistently dim-witted and have about as much personality as the grown-ups in a Peanuts cartoon.
There are exactly two moments that I really like. Early on, one of the kids is giving his buddies an inspirational speech via video chat. In an effort to boost the power of his words, the kid opens iTunes and cranks up the main theme from the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves soundtrack. Later, that same kid rides his bicycle down the road and hums his own heroic theme music. Those are nice little character touches. A pity that sort of thing is nowhere to be found elsewhere. The movie is good-natured and inoffensive, I suppose, but I can't think of a single reason to recommend it over the films it mimics.
Earth to Echo
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 2014