If I had a dollar for every time a critic dismissively claimed “we’ve seen this story before,” I’d be filthy rich living on my own private island – aren’t most Hollywood movies borrowing ideas from elsewhere? Keep your Super 8 comparisons to yourself, because I don’t remember J.J. Abrams’ childhood adventure featuring a fun-loving robot who leads three best friends on a vandalism-filled wild goose chase. Earth To Echo is an alien-themed version of Humpty Dumpty – and a sweet one at that – sporting similarities to classic children’s sci-fi material, only this time around the extraterrestrial star isn’t a Reese’s Pieces munching oddity. Children need films with strong, positive moral backbones, something our little friend Echo shows off by instilling the bonds of friendship while proving anything is possible.
Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are best buds until the end, but when a freeway construction project displaces all the residents in their suburban community, their final night together approaches. Looking for one last epic night together, the trio decide to investigate some strange occurrences happening to their phones (what they coin as “phone barf”), but their decision starts an epic adventure they might not be suited to finish. Discovering a small canister deep into the desert, a little robotic alien reveals himself and starts guiding the boys different places in an effort to rebuild himself with the end goal of reaching home. Like any good adventure, villains present themselves, as other people have their eyes set on the mysterious being. Can our heroic chums save the world before being grounded, with the help of a cootie-ridden girl named Emma (Ella Wahlestedt)?
Honestly, Earth To Echo is adorable. Yes, I’m an *arguably* grown man admitting Earth To Echo wondrously illuminates adolescent uncertainty, when change meant something scary, unknown, and paralyzing. The younger you are, the harder it is to wave goodbye to safety and security, certain you’ll never find friends like the crew you’re currently rolling with, but Henry Gayden’s screenplay eases that nervous energy for scared children in the same scenario. Alex, Tuck, and Munch’s connection with Echo parallels a universal message about the bonds of friendship withstanding any distance, as the film ends with their clunky compadre beeping from space, but Gayden also teaches about the power of determined teamwork – even from social outcasts. Alex, Tuck, and Munch are “invisibles,” the kids at school no one seems to notice, but despite their unpopular nature, a greater purpose leads them to infamy, laughing “status” in the face.
Thanks to Tuck’s super secret spy gear, Earth To Echo is caught entirely through found footage angles – but not an annoyingly frantic version leading to motion sickness. The cast ends up being little Wally Phister types who know their way around filmmaking, as it’s obvious that director Dave Green sacrifices realism for crisp quality as to not infuriate viewers who have denounced found footage from their lives. From Echo’s back-lighting to specific scenes like the arcade showdown, Green joyfully plays around with color schemes and bright, catchy environments that bring life to the other-worldly journey, something that couldn’t be done if some tweens filmed a documentary all on their lonesome.
Another curious factor about this children’s adventure revolves around a mature sensibility that’s also indulgently immature, but this strange anecdotal balance doesn’t exactly resonate with older viewers, unlike a wittily enjoyable all-ages-romp like The Lego Movie. Earth To Echo is geared to a younger audience who can relate closely to Munch’s awkwardness or Alex’s adolescent crushing, but then the children share a deeply affecting moment of compassion or throw a “Your Mom” joke out, and age becomes a mere factor. More often than not the boys are a group of video-game loving young lads, but there’s an inclination of strength and independence that’s foolishly hidden behind a facade of goofy kiddie-geared gags.
But there’s something I needed more of – and that’s more Echo. Unlike many movies that are able to establish similar creatures as actual characters, Echo is reduced to mere beeps and bloops for long stretches of time, resting in his rocket-like chamber. Battered and beaten after crash-landing, Echo’s moments fully interacting with the boys are innocent and meaningful, as they nurse their mechanical buddy back to strength. They care for Echo and worry about his well being, almost like a pet, but their loving connection brings Echo to life – when he’s on screen. Earth To Echo focuses more on the human drama between our growing friends than Echo’s personable antics, but the poor little alien deserves more screentime – he/she/it was meant to shine.
Mark my words – Earth To Echo will make a star out of Teo Halm. X-Factor alumn Brian “Astro” Bradley and Reese Hartwig have seen their own share of previous successes, and will continue to do so after apt performances yet again, but Halm absolutely shines as Echo’s closest protector. Crying on command and sporting a deep emotional range, Halm’s talents stretch far and wide, but Earth To Echo only becomes as strong as the entire trio of blossoming stars – a rambunctious group of kiddos working together to ensure found footage success. The group dynamic is full of warm chemistry, showing a real bond between characters, but more importantly, each actor appears to be having fun. Their parts don’t seem like work – there’s a seamless transition that suggests these kids have been chums for ages, and that lends to a whole lot more appreciation for such a “generic” sci-fi picture.
I’m not saying Earth To Echo is the next Wall-E or whatever epic science fiction adventure you’d like to compare Green’s heartwarming tale to, but I am saying there’s a richer, deeper story than Gayden lets on. As Echo’s presence becomes known and the children embark on a fantastical journey, we start to realize the titular metallic alien isn’t simply a buzzy gimmick, but a symbol of comforting hope for developing souls. Children don’t have the experience to understand that life is scary, unfair, and sometimes depressing, but who better to make sense of it all than a downed alien? Despite my best efforts, I eventually let my hard-shelled barrier come crumbling down at the expense of true friendship, wide-eyed beauty, and nostalgic curiosity – making me feel like the invincible child of yesteryear. Hell, I won’t even make a joke about how jaded I’ve become since – that’s how good a mood I’m in!
Sure, Echo is no Wall-E or Number 5, but Green's latest childhood sci-fi piece holds a much more heartfelt story than it lets on - found footage and all.