In the end, Earth to Echo is surprisingly more fun and heartfelt than the stigma it earned for being a found-footage knock-off.
In Earth to Echo, we meet three young friends in a small Nevada town, who are facing the heartbreak of being evicted from their community in order to make room for a new freeway. Young video blogger Tuck (Brian 'Astro' Bradley) isn't ready to accept the end, so he convinces his foster kid best friend Alex (Teo Halm) and tech-geek buddy Munch (Reese Hartwig) that they need to take one last Goonies-style shot at saving the town.
Their chance comes in the form of a mysterious disruption on their cell phones - a disruption they soon recognize to be a map. With nothing to lose, and a possible discovery that could save their town, the boys set out on a bike ride into the desert, to find what lies at the end of the mysterious map. What the find - and what that discovery ultimately leads them to - will change their lives forever - no matter the outcome of this one pivotal night.
Earth to Echo can fairly be described Goonies meets E.T. by way of found footage - and the actual film pretty much reflects what that description would imply. Earth to Echo captures a lot of the wonder and heart of E.T., mixes in the one-night adventure and slight edge of danger from Goonies, but is ultimately held back by the usual shortcomings of the found-footage format. The end result is a a fresh-yet-familiar sci-fi adventure for adolescents that's not as good as it could've been, but still delivers a solid good time, nonetheless.
Zombie Roadkill writer/director team Henry Gayden and Dave Green (with a story credit going to producer Andrew Panay) should be commended for making more out the found-footage format than most filmmakers manage to do. The script does a satisfactory job providing both characterization and logical motivation for the amateur documentation of events (a post-millennial vlogger trying to save his town), and then, maintains that logic throughout most of the transitions in footage peppered throughout the film (handicam to bike cam to spy cam, etc.).
The filmmakers also make the prudent move of framing the story in a voice-over narrative, which immediately explains and justifies any cuts or other noticeable edits in the footage. (Because we are watching events after the fact, there is no conflict with the visual cues that tell us we are seeing a contrived and edited piece of work.) It isn't so much found-footage as faux documentary, and that distinction makes all the difference in the world.
...And yet, that same distinction is also the movie's greatest hindrance. Gayden and Green craft such a solid foundation for the film - with a good premise, well-rounded and relatable adolescent characters and a cute alien creature in Echo - that the lack of presentation becomes frustrating. They have enough here for a good movie shot in traditional fashion, and that fact makes it even more disappointing every time that choices and developments that might otherwise work in a traditionally shot film (coincidental encounters, sequences of comedy or wit or kinetic action) fall flat when presented in found-footage format.
The format doesn't add anything to the proceedings - other than presumably saving the filmmakers a lot of money on budget, which then could be invested in the visual effects used to create Echo and his advanced alien tech. The effects that go into creating Echo and his hardware (and the film's action sequences) are good enough - but again, there is a sense of frustration that comes with every shaken, blurred, jumbled, or poorly framed shot of faux amateur footage, when we'd rather be observing these fun and captivating moments in more controlled and steady presentation. Despite the visual limitations of the format, the journey and adventure is alive and palpable throughout most of the film (a few drags here and there) - and there is genuine emotional heft to it all, thanks in large part to the talent of the young ensemble cast.
Brian 'Astro' Bradley (that breakout young rapper from The X Factor USA) spends much of the movie oscillating between an "urban youth" caricature and a well-rounded and believable version of "Tuck." Ultimately, however, the young man reveals some unexpected dimensions of emotion and nuance that save Tuck from being an annoying braggart, and redeem him as the most sensitive and vulnerable kid in the group. Teo Halm is similarly as good as Alex, keeping a cool and reserved veneer that he slowly cracks (with meticulous control) to reveal a hurt and angry young foster kid underneath. It is Alex who carries the emotional through line of the film via his bond with Echo, and Halm pulls that off well, while also staying in balance with his human co-stars.
Resse Hartwig completes the trio as Munch, providing both a sweet, childlike earnestness and the comic relief. As a trio, Bradley, Halm and Hartwig are like modern-day versions of Mouth, Mikey and Data/Chunk from Goonies, which gives the film the necessary core it needs to provide compelling narrative and character arcs, as well as satisfying emotional payoff. Poor Ella Wahlestedt's character, Emma, is more plot device than actual character - but as a plot devices go, she has more spunk and spirit than most.
In the end, Earth to Echo is surprisingly more fun and heartfelt than the stigma it earned for being a "found-footage knock-off." That same stigma is definitely justified in part (found-footage hurts more than helps in this case) - but even so, as a family-friendly sci-fi adventure for the holiday weekend, it's a solid pick. (For everyone else, though, it will be a fun future rental.)
Earth to Echo is now playing in theaters. It is 89 minutes and is Rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language.
Follow me and talk movies @ppnkof