Here to suck some time out of your precious holiday is perhaps one of the most unoriginal sci-fi films of the past decade. It’s not just that it lifts material—it’s that it lifts that material in the laziest way possible. And if I sound a bit too harsh on a children’s film, it’s probably because this sort of film is always an easy sell for me. Alien/robot making connection with kids in need of a friend, the evil adults who are simply missing out on the wonder and trying to drag it down to the dirt.
I was less moved by Earth to Echo than I was by Real Steel, for god’s sake. That’s right, a Rock’em Sock’em Robot film was better at eliciting an emotional response from me than this movie.
Basic minor plot spoilers for the film below.
A practical note to start: If you have even a slight sensitivity to shaky cam, do not see this movie. I have never had such a pronounced reaction to this filming style, and there was no 3D to blame in this one either. The camera isn’t just bouncing; the jump cuts are violent and the light sources in the movie occasionally produce a strobe-like effect. It could make someone incredibly ill—I was effectively seasick for a good two hours afterward, as was my viewing partner.
Earth to Echo has two primary beloved sources it’s drawing from—E.T. and The Goonies. It centers around a trio of boys who are soon going to be forced from their homes because a company is tearing down their houses to make a highway. The boys are all oddballs in their own way, and only had each other for years: Tuck is an ignored youngest child who compulsively films all of their adventures, Munch is overly-precocious worrywart with divorced parents, Alex is a foster kid who’s been bounced around to plenty of homes already in his life. When all of their cellphones start acting up, showing them a map into a nearby desert, they decide that they’ll spend their last night together finding out what the map leads to.
The film is smart in the beginning, accurately showing how kids use modern technology to connect, and giving a clear foundation for the friendship that exists between the trio. It is all the character building they receive in the film, as they spend the rest of it relegated to their “roles” in the group. Alex fares a little better than the other two; though Tuck is one telling the story, Alex receives all the major plot turns. His fear of being abandoned is what leads to their adoption of the charge at the end of the map—an alien that they name “Echo” due to his ability to echo tones back at them. (Tuck wants to call him “Space Ninja” at one point, which is a missed opportunity.) He needs to gather parts for the key to his ship, so he can go home. If they help ferry him about, he’ll get done in no time.
Echo him(it?)self is a true disappointment because he’s barely a character at all. He can only reply in yes-or-no beeps, and he exists primarily to look unspeakably cute and vulnerable. The character design works in his favor—he looks as though Wall-E and Eve managed to have a baby—but there is nothing more to him. He has none of E.T.’s personality, none of Wall-E’s charm, no sense of humor, preferences, reference points. He is a goal portrayed as an entity, and it is abundantly clear that the filmmakers are relying on the audience’s “look, a puppy!” instincts to carry the conceit of the Echo through the film.
There are evil adults, of course, but these evil adults… are barely evil at all? What they want is bad, but once you get the big picture of the plot in your mind, there’s actually no real reason for them to be as angry as they appear. As a result, all of their scenes fall flat. In E.T., the government has real menace, what they do to Elliot and E.T. is torture, and we’re given time to live that experience with them. The peril in this film relegated to a couple tense conversations, a chase or two, and a couple sad shots of people being mean to Echo. Nothing is given more than a few seconds to land.
Of course, they add one girl to the mix in the latter half of the film. Emma goes to school with the boys and they are thoroughly creepy to her when she’s introduced; Tuck pretends that he got her number and later that he’s kissed her to look cool to the guys, Munch refers to her as Mannequin Girl, with the addendum “Mannequins are hot.” (What? What!?) It’s irritating that she’s not part of the original group, but Hollywood seems to have the most difficult time understanding that boys and girls are capable of being friends as they grow up. This film is no different.
When Emma is reintroduced it seems as though her parents are caught in the 1950s and expect their 13-year-old daughter to be entertaining to the sons of their wealthy friends with dances (ostensibly at a yacht club, right)? Is she an ambassador’s daughter? An actual debutante? It’s not really clear. And then she proceeds to press in on their adventure until the boys are forced to accept her. She actually gets most of the important information from Echo, which Tuck proceeds to “edit out” of the movie because she annoyed him. So… a huge portion of Emma’s time in the film is “deleted” because boys-will-be-boys excuses, and the screenwriters clearly didn’t know how they’d get around writing swathes of exposition if they’d had to show her conversations with Echo.
Plus, it would have taken away from Alex’s bond with Echo, and he’s the important character. I guess.
The big twist at the end of the film is visible a mile away, which takes all the tension out of the finale. The “lesson,” if we can say the film has one, is vague and disconnected, and barely relates to Echo in the end. The exact same outcome might have occurred without his ever showing up at all, despite what Tuck says about the experience changing them. I suppose they would not have the coveted female friend that they were lacking before. Being the sort of person who was expecting to cry buckets at this movie—no joke, tiny aliens get me every time—I was amazed at how little there was to care about.
The quartet are a great group of young actors, and I wish them well in far better movies that this one. But if you want a moving account of kids coming-of-age with an SFF twist, you’d be better off just screening The Goonies or E.T. at home, and enjoying real quality entertainment for the whole family.
Or, to put it as a very sharp twelve-year-old did, as I was leaving the theater, “I don’t know… it was just a lot of special effects, wasn’t it?”
Ouch, kid. You are our future. Your astute analysis gives me hope.