Somewhere beneath the wreckage of its found-footage conceit, a heartfelt, 80s-style, family-friendly, science-fiction adventure lurks within Earth to Echo.
Revolving around the friendship of three boys, the film seeks to recapture the moment when childhood yields to adolescence, and an optimistic willingness to believe is replaced by the pessimistic sting of continual doubt. It's set in the classic, idealistic suburbs of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a quiet neighborhood in the fictional Mulberry Falls, Nevada, that will soon become extinct because a highway will be constructed straight through the middle of it. With all the families busily preparing to move, the three boys have noticed strange things happening -- all the cell phones "barfing," as one example -- and decide to investigate, enjoying one last all-night adventure before they are separated forever.
Tuck (Brian 'Astro' Bradley) is a budding filmmaker who is compelled to record every moment for posterity; Alex (Teo Helm) is a foster child who is allergic to being left behind; Munch (Reese Hartwig) is a child of divorce who is also a techno-geek. Riding their bicycles to a certain spot far out in the desert, they make a startling discovery: a creature from outer space has crash-landed and needs help.
Quicker than anyone can say, "Where is he from, Uranus? Get it? Your anus?" the boys have enlarged their circle of friends, which then expands further when their pretty classmate Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) unexpectedly joins them. The adventure continues from there in a narrative that borrows frequently from Spielberg's landmark film.
The found-footage style utilized in Earth to Echo by director Dave Green, however, has nothing to do with the sweet, kid-oriented message of friendship, loyalty, and ambition that is laid out in plain terms by Henry Gayden's screenplay (with story credited to Gayden and Andrew Panay). Oh, there is justification given, but the reality is that the technique employed by director of photography Maxime Alexandre -- who has a distinguished resume of horror films, starting with Haute Tension and continuing through the Maniac remake -- and his experienced camera crew members, who must pretend to be boys using their consumer equipment in an amateur manner, is far more distracting than artful within the context of the story.
Instead of enhancing the fantastical premise of the story, the found-footage technique serves as constant reminder that nothing in the movie is authentic. Every time the camera is waved around and someone says, 'Did you see that?' or 'Turn off the camera!,' the suspension of disbelief that's necessary to embrace such a tale is smashed into pieces.
Putting that issue aside, though, Earth to Echo is still far too indebted to its multiple sources of inspiration -- not just the Spielberg movie -- to establish its own identity as a 21st century fable of enduring friendship. (On the positive side, Joseph Trapanese's original musical score is an unqualified triumph, and the visual effects are extremely well-done.) Overall, it's too weakly-brewed to make a very strong impact on adults; children and younger adolescents who enjoy the milder forms of reality television and love cute creatures may get much more out of it.
The film opens wide in theaters throughout North America today, Wednesday, July 2.