Nostalgia can be dangerous, especially when it comes to the film industry. Nostalgia is what gives us endless remakes, reboots and sequels to what’s come before, in the place of more original fare. It seems like most people would choose to go to a film based on something that they’re familiar with than take a chance on something new, and the studios know this. Nostalgia is often served up as a method of forging an emotional connection with an audience, in place of real emotion in the story. But nostalgia can be dangerous from the other side of things too, when it prevents us from giving a film a chance simply because it looks similar to something we’ve seen and loved before. (I recently had a long argument with a coworker over whether movies released today will still be watched in 50 years as movies from the 1960’s are still watched today, with the twist being that he doesn’t see modern movies because he doesn’t think they can possibly compare to the films of his youth.) I think Earth to Echo has become a victim to nostalgia.
Earth to Echo bears unmistakable similarities to E.T., and as such it’s been labeled by many as a ripoff of that masterpiece, despite the fact that E.T. was certainly not the first film to feature a friendly alien visitor and a hostile government. And while I think Earth to Echo does intentionally set itself up as a “modern E.T.,” it has different things to say and a different sensibility about it. Earth to Echo tells the story of three best friends, middle-schoolers Tuck, Munch and Alex. The friends are spending their last few days together before their families are all forced to move so that their neighborhoods outside of Las Vegas can be demolished in order to build a new Interstate. Suddenly, on their next-to-last day together, their cell phones start acting crazy, displaying the same strange, indecipherable image. After a brief investigation leads them to determine the image is a map leading out into the desert, they decide to hop on their bikes and spend their last night together on an adventure, with Tuck filming the entire night on his video camera.
The map leads them to a small, metal… something lying by itself in the sand. They’re puzzled as to what it could be, and when the maps on their phones change they head off to a new destination where the metal device opens to reveal a small, injured alien robot. The adorable alien, crash landed and helpless, uses their phone cameras to see in place of his damaged eye and can only communicate in beeps, one for yes and two for no. They name him Echo after he mimics the noises Alex makes, and play twenty questions with him to learn as much as they can. The trio of friends decide to help him acquire the missing pieces of his spaceship from around the desert and the town, all while being pursued by some mysterious officials in an intense sort of scavenger hunt.
The film is shot entirely in the “found footage” style that has been perhaps overused in recent years. Certainly the horror genre has been flooded with it since The Blair Witch Project 15 years ago, and it’s branched out into monster movies and superhero films, but this is the first time I can recall it being used in a PG-rated family adventure film. On the whole, it works pretty well, as Turk has the footage from several cameras and phones to use, and it matches the scope of the film well. The stylistic choice makes everything feel more intimate and personal, keeping the focus on our trio of heroes and the helpless alien while still allowing for some epic moments and cool shots. It also helps the film feel more modern, particularly for a generation that watches more Youtube videos than movies. The found footage aspect is used in several clever ways, like when Turk pulls up the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves theme song on his computer as heroic music before they set off on their quest. On the other hand, having one character behind the camera most of the time makes for a sometimes excessive amount of narration, and the actual narration of the film seemingly points things at a happy ending too early.
Earth to Echo’s strengths lay in its portrayals of Tuck, Munch and Alex. All three of the kids have unsatisfying home lives: one is a foster kid, one lives with his divorced mother who doesn’t understand him, and one is simply ignored by his parents who prefer his college-bound older brother. The characters seemingly share little in common besides their melancholy situations, perhaps what drew them together in the first place. The trio of young, unknown actors, Teo Halm, Brian Bradley and Reese Hartwig, bring an authenticity to the film that more polished performers might have lacked.
It’s interesting to me to compare Earth to Echo to Super 8, both of which clearly have E.T. to thank for their stories. But while Earth to Echo has seemingly been crushed by the forces of nostalgia, Super 8 was embraced by them. Super 8 was clearly intended not only as an homage to the story of E.T. but as an homage to the film itself, set as a period piece about kids at just the right age to have been influenced by E.T. upon its original release. It sought to capture the innocence of an earlier time, and was targeted not at the age groups for whom E.T. was made, but for the adults who were kids when it first debuted. By contrast, Earth to Echo is targeted squarely at today’s kids, who couldn’t care less about what happened in the 1980’s, telling a familiar story in a way that makes it far more relatable in the moment. While E.T. is timeless and Super 8 is intentionally historical, Earth to Echo is all about right now. In five years, it will probably look outdated and have been long forgotten, but for now it tells a story that is still worth retelling in a way that makes it feel new once again.