The first person footage stylings of the family adventure Earth to Echo certainly aren’t covering any uncharted territory, but it’s still one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer thus far: an unpretentious Amblin Entertainment styled throwback to the 1980s told in a filmmaking style that has similarly gone out of style despite barely being over a decade old. It’s fun, funny, and far better than most all ages films can muster. Fans of The Goonies, Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included, and The Explorers will find a ton to love here and a chance to share that same excitement with their kids. No one has made this kind of film since The Iron Giant, and while it isn’t up to that lofty level of expectation it’s the perfect antidote to the current slate of Hollywood blockbusters in theatres at the moment.
In a quiet desert community in Nevada that’s about to be destroyed to make way for a new superhighway, a trio of teenage best friends decide to have one final adventure together before circumstance forces them to go their separate ways. Their last night in town coincides with a mysterious electrical phenomena that has made all cell phones go haywire, essentially “barfing up” a map of the surrounding desert that only the boys and some shadowy “contractors” can make sense of. After lying and saying they’ll be at each other’s houses, the boys head out to find the source of this distress signal to find a tiny, cute looking downed alien who needs to find the bits and pieces that comprise the key to his spaceship so he can return home.
Everything about director Dave Green’s debut feature is pure unadulterated 1980s love with a modern twist. It comes lovingly cobbled together from elements that have made the films of his youth resonate with viewers today. At time, it makes the narrative feel a bit timeless. Despite the upgrades in modern technology and the kids filming everything they do to potentially get the hits up on their YouTube channel, the fears and neuroses of the everyday young adult haven’t changed very much since the 80s.
Alex (Teo Halm) is a good natured foster kid with abandonment issues, meaning he’s the perfect candidate to bond the closest to the lost interstellar traveller. Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley) is the de facto leader of the group despite not being nearly as brave or clever as he outwardly tries to tell everyone he is, and he has parents and a sibling who can barely acknowledge his existence. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the worrywart tech nerd who tries to warn Alex and Tuck when they’re about to do something stupid. Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) is the spoiled little rich girl who comes in about halfway through the film to tag along because she’s sick of her parents running/ruining her life.
You know these characters well if you’ve seen any film that was ever produced by Steven Spielberg, but the reason they still endure today in his productions is because they’re so easily sketched and identifiable that audience members can see themselves in one or more of the characters. It might not seem like much and some will undoubtedly chide the film as being a rip-off, but making these archetypes work once again in an adventurous narrative has become a lost art in an era where parents are more likely to lock their kids away from danger or constantly text them on their iPhones every hour of the day to find out where they are. Plus, if it’s a “rip-off,” then one can’t accuse Green and company that they aren’t ripping off from the absolute best and taking only the best working elements with them.
It’s true that back in the early 80s everyone wanted to replicate the success of E.T., and most of the time the results were positively disastrous and ill fitting (Mac and Me, Nukie, even Flight of the Navigator admittedly isn’t that great of a movie and deep down the people who are nostalgic for it probably know that), but Earth to Echo works so well precisely because of the clear love it has for the material that inspired it. There’s no bait and switch in play here. There’s no drive to make billions of dollars and hope that no one notices the clearly sketched out lines from a well worn playbook. It’s made as a reminder that films like this can still exist. Much like the hope that drives the main characters, there’s a hope here that maybe good natured, well intentioned, no frills family films can still be made outside of superhero flicks, animated sequels, and thinly veiled commercials for other products.
There’s not a lot of originality in the plotting department and the film’s “found footage” conceit looks far too good to be believed, but overall Earth to Echo is a tightly constructed bit of positive nostalgia designed to make older people remember what it was like to sit in a theatre on a hot afternoon while on summer vacation watching the latest blockbuster they dragged their parents to with a wide eyed wonder. I’m not entirely sure if today’s youngsters will share the same sentiment (although Echo himself is a pretty cute owl-looking creature and the jokes should hit all their marks), but it’s nice to see that someone still cares enough to make this kind of movie. Considering how long it has been since we got one of these, I welcome something made this well with open arms. Hopefully you will, too. Unless you’re cynical about these kinds of things, in which case Earth to Echo will only poison your hardened heart even further.