29 July 2014


At the height of the busy summer season, Earth to Echo has arrived in cinemas with little fanfare. Nevertheless, here's a film that deserves the family ticket fee and more importantly, it feels like it will pick up some cult appreciation amongst its target audience further down the line. I'm prepared to say that time will tell on this one.

The film takes place in a neighbourhood that is about to be uprooted to make way for a new overpass, where three best friends- Alex, Tuck and Munch- are about to be separated for good. In the final week before they all move, their phones start displaying strange signals, possibly caused by interference with the phone network at the building site. They make a bike journey to the source of the signal as their final adventure together and happen upon an alien robot that is attempting to repair the key to its spaceship.

The current generation of filmmakers, whether commercial or independent in their sensibilities, grew up wanting to make films after seeing stuff in the 1980s. Happily for some of them, the current appetite for older properties mean that they get to direct new entries to those franchises rather than taking inspiration to create original stories with new characters and concepts. Instead of giving us the new Star Wars, JJ Abrams is currently making a new Star Wars, which is less than surprising from the director who gave us Super 8, a film to which this has suffered from unfairly unfavourable comparisons.

Although it did a good job of evoking the awe and emotion of the films it homaged, Super 8 felt more like a thesis film about the Amblin Entertainment canon (films like E.T, The Goonies, et al) than a story in its own right, because it doubled down on nostalgia for a period in which Abrams never really lived. Not that new is always better, but Earth to Echo is so enjoyable because while director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden unashamedly delve into Amblin iconography, (torches and bicycles especially) and takes inspiration from sources as varied as Stand By Me and The Blair Witch Project, it never merely feels like a reanimation of those tropes.

It also addresses kids on their own level, providing one of the better representations of how growing up with the internet has affected the younger generation. The three leads are played by Teo Halm, Brian 'Astro' Bradley and Reese Hartwig and they make a believable troupe of inbetweener kids, resourceful with consumer technology and apps but neither nerdy nor popular, in what feels like an un-self-conscious update of that camaraderie between teenage boys. They're just at that age where they start exaggerating their experience with girls to one another, even if that only covers getting a phone number or a kiss, in a running joke that is enjoyably refreshed by Ella Wahlestedt's Emma joining the intrepid group.

The film starts on an uncharacteristic downbeat note in which there's anxiety about Munch, the group's Ralph Wiggum, and the likelihood of him finding friends in his new neighbourhood. It doesn't set the tone for the whole film, which has lots of really funny moments, but it does cast a bittersweet pallor over the adventure that ensues. Although no found footage film gets away completely clean in terms of cinematography and logic, but there's at least a good reason why young Tuck would keep filming, to document their last grand outing together.

Still, Green and Gayden downplay what might otherwise have been a Stand By Me "you guys wanna see a dead body?" quest with the more fantastical PG-rated sci-fi elements, travelling around town searching for components to help their alien buddy. The robot, dubbed 'Echo' for its learning curve in communications, is a cute character that gradually comes to represent more than a McGuffin as the story wears on. For such a low-range movie, there are some spectacularly imaginative special effects on show here, from the design of Echo to the cool move of dissembling and reassembling things- for a while it seems like the money shot is in the trailer, but the finale tops it with one last bit of ingenuity.

Although the last few weeks have been big on new releases, the family audience has been a bit under-served this summer. As much as we "grown-ups" enjoy 12A comic book movies, there's a large trend of children's characters getting away from that core audience with darker and more complex stories, leaving the PG market wanting. Hell, we've all seen what happens when Michael Bay does Transformers, explosions and titties and all. If you have kids and you've seen How To Train Your Dragon 2 already, (if not, why not?) then this is by far the best option for families in the multiplex right now and you should see it while you can.

As mentioned, some have drawn unfavourable comparisons from Earth to Echo to Super 8, or further back to the lauded Amblin films in which it takes root. To me, this felt more like a Flight of the Navigator or a Witch Mountain movie. It's the kind of heartfelt and serviceable movie that will get tonnes of airtime on telly during the school holidays of years to come, where it will likely find a more loyal following. Not all of those films that air on rotation are this good, but the funny and recognisable characters and dazzling special effects elevate this far above what could reasonably be called a derivative plot and a meagre show at the box office.

Earth to Echo is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Earth to Echo, why not leave a comment below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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