“E.T.” and “Super 8” are the obvious inspirations for “Earth to Echo,” a children’s adventure movie that mashes together Steven Spielberg’s and J.J. Abrams’ odes to suburban kids dealing with extraterrestrial phenomena and presents the result via the tired found-footage device that serves as a crutch to justify gross technical ineptitude. Charmless and visually oppressive, it only serves to highlight the superiority of the movies it’s so crudely copying.
The script introduces three bike-riding pals—obnoxious motor-mouth Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), sweet foster-child Alex (Teo Halm) and brainy Munch (Reese Hartwig)—just as their Nevada subdivision is being vacated to allow for the construction of a new freeway. When some mysterious force causes all the cell phones in the area to go bonkers, the intrepid trio decide to investigate the apparent cause of the disruption deep in the desert. Concocting a cover story to mislead their uniformly dunderhead parents, they cycle off into the night in search of “the source.”
The technological aspects of their mission are so jumbled and incomprehensible that they’re hardly worth mentioning—the filmmakers apparently believe that the herky-jerky, poorly framed images supposedly captured by Tuck’s variously-positioned mini-cams are sloppy enough to silence criticism on that score. Suffice it to say that they find a beat-up canister that proves to house a little metal critter, looking rather like Ray Harryhausen’s mechanical owl from “Clash of the Titans,” that they befriend and call Echo from the beeping noises through which they learn to communicate with it.
The rest of the picture follows their attempts to assist Echo in finding and re-assembling the spaceship that US DOD forces apparently blew up after it entered the atmosphere and are now trying to locate using the cover story of the highway project. That puts them in the crosshairs of the phony construction workers, who are out to capture little Echo and force the boys to tell them what they’ve learned about him—it. The trio is aided, however, by Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt), a pretty classmate who proves resourceful in misdirecting the government types.
How Emma gets involved in the whole scenario, however, is just one aspect of the movie’s major structural flaw—the jumbled nature of the intrepid tykes’ itinerary, which is based on “maps” that Echo keeps inserting into their phones and that take them to a pawn shop, an arcade and a biker bar, as well as Emma’s house (among other location), in some of which the critter causes mini-earthquakes while apparently collecting bits and pieces of its ship. None of these episodes are logically explained, and because of the found-footage approach they—like the interspersed scenes of the boys frantically bicycling away (or screeching down roads in stolen cars and trucks)—are distractingly ugly and poorly edited.
Along the way Alex, who as a foster kid is as lost as Echo, develops an emotional bond with the little alien, and ultimately it’s he who takes on the Henry Thomas role, returning the owlish creature to its proper perch in the control room of the buried ship and watching wide-eyed as debris from the rest of the vessel is magically restored to its original form before zooming off into the stratosphere There are no flying bicycles in this instance, however—merely a dreary foot-chase through the suburban neighborhood that has no sense of excitement or wonder. But we’re supposed to be uplifted by Tuck’s final words, a cornball poem to the power of kids to do important things that smacks one as the grossest sort of pandering to its target audience.
The kid actors are not better than okay, with pleasantly ordinary Halm coming off best; but Bradley’s know-it-all smugness quickly grows annoying, while Hartwig’s amiable bumbling gets stale fast as well, and Wahlestedt’s initial hauteur—which could have been an amusing counterpoint—almost immediately dissolves into tomboyish camaraderie. As so often in such movies, the adults don’t matter much: they’re either foolish or vaguely threatening (like Jason Grey-Stanford’s lead construction worker or both. Technically the picture is variable. Some of the effects, like the shots of Echo cavorting about are pretty well done, and there’s a fairly impressive scene in which Echo uses his powers to deal cleverly with a semi that’s hurtling down the road directly at our heroes (obviously meant to serve as the equivalent of Spielberg’s flying bicycles moment). But otherwise the visuals are pretty mediocre, and none of them benefit from Maxime Alexandre’s handheld cinematography, which unhappily follows the found-footage formula to its customary aesthetic dead end and isn’t enhanced by all the intercuts and wipeovers employed by editors Crispin Struthers and Carsten Kurpanek. (It certainly doesn’t help that after many of the big action moments, one of the kids will say, “Did you see that? That was amazing!” because in many cases it’s impossible to see what’s happening at all clearly, and what we do see is far from amazing.) Joseph Trapanese’s big, blowsy orchestral source doesn’t match up with the whole “amateur movie” premise, but why should one expect consistency there when it’s so lacking elsewhere?
“Earth to Echo” had a curious production history, being financed by Disney but then sold to Relativity Media for distribution. The Mouse House is capable of making some very bad decisions, but fobbing off this slipshod misfire on somebody else was not one of them.