Monday, July 7, 2014

Follow the Echo, Echo: EARTH TO ECHO

The dopily derivative Earth to Echo is a plucky kids’ sci-fi adventure that arrives mediated through layers of visual and cultural clutter. It’s a found footage movie that finds its 13-year-old characters constantly filming themselves. We get angles from a camcorder, spy glasses, GoPro, and iPhones while the film juggles images from webchats, YouTube videos, screenshots, GPS, monitors, Google Maps, and fuzzy digitized alien POVs. Sometimes it’s supposed to be a video cut together after the fact by our main characters, but as is usually the case with these kinds of movies, the visual approach is scattershot. Just once I’d like to see a found footage movie that’s actually visually incomprehensible without carefully framed shots that catch the bulk of the information we need in any given scene while looking like an accident. Given the age of the protagonists here, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s camerawork’s shiny, professional amateurism is the motion picture equivalent of the backwards “R” in the Toys"R"Us logo. We get the shorthand, but we also get the idea no kid would make such perfect errors.

In this particular found footage movie, we follow three tween boys, a camera-loving average guy (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a shy nerd (Reese Hartwig), and a moody foster kid (Teo Halm). Best friends, they’re sad their suburban Nevada neighborhood is set to be demolished to make way for a new highway. They decide to have one last night of fun before moving separate ways. It just so happens they’ve been receiving strange map-like signals on their phones and decide to fake a sleepover – the old tell-each-parent-they’re-staying-somewhere-else trick – and head out into the desert to follow the directions. Now, I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to receiving mysterious, unknowable maps on my phone would not be to follow them. But I digress.

Having seen dozens of found footage horror movies, the opening scenes evoke some Pavlovian horror anticipation, but the kids merely discover a bleeping alien robot thing that looks like a small, twee version of the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans. It communicates only by beeping, a process they quickly use to figure out that the little guy needs to find enough spare parts to cobble together a signal to open his missing spaceship and go home. The rest of the movie takes place during this one crazy night as the three boys, plus a token girl (Ella Wahlestedt) they pick up along the way, sneak around the suburbs on a scavenger hunt for their silent alien buddy. They spend their time helping him plan his planetary escape while hiding him from creepy pseudo-governmental forces led by an untrustworthy construction foreman (Jason Gray-Stanford).

This debut feature for writer Henry Gayden and director Dave Green plays like an updated, first-person, social media and smart phone-saturated version of all those 80’s kids’ adventures (like Explorers or Flight of the Navigator) where kids roamed free and got into small, contained sci-fi adventures. I suppose it’s the answer for anyone who ever wanted to watch E.T. and Stand by Me at the same time without having to worry about watching a great movie.  But it’s all done so earnestly that it can’t help but be effective at conveying friendship in the face of very early adolescent uncertainty. It’s not so much about the alien, which provides a B-movie hook, but rather in the kids’ bonding.

When the movie casually pokes at the sense of genuine care and friendship these kids have, it works pretty well. The young performers have a fun rapport that’s convincing, and shyness around the sudden introduction of The Girl that feels spot on. She’s quickly made a part of the team, given some hasty characterization, and barely becomes a source of romantic tension, so at least there’s that. The four kids seem like real kids, testing the limits of childhood vocabulary and expression (one kid awkwardly blurts out that he thinks “mannequins are hot, okay?”) while fumbling with new feelings, trying to make sense of the encroaching adult world. Older brothers, security guards, bar patrons, and parents are all the same kind of mystery here. No wonder the alien’s more understandable to them.

The core relationships aren’t enough to overcome the cheesy writing and slapdash style. There’s so much schmaltz and shaky-cam placed on top of it that it’s sometimes hard to care. I certainly couldn’t ever really get invested in the alien or his plight. His design is generic and his personality is nonexistent. When we get our big moment of tearful love for the little guy, I wasn’t feeling it. Since that’s the main thrust of the narrative, it’s a problem. The sloppy, inconsistent, unpredictable visual style certainly doesn’t help matters. There are some neat special effects and a small bit of charm to the premise, but it’s nothing too involving or especially interesting. Still, it’s sweet and sincere enough, and the leads are likeable enough, that it wouldn’t surprise me if kids who see it now will grow up with outsized affection for it all the same.

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