×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Earth to Echo’

This earthbound sci-fier offers found-footage fun for the whole family.

With:
Teo Halm, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Linnea Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford.

Boasting the dubious distinction of being the first found-footage adventure made for family audiences, “Earth to Echo” reaches for the stars with its gentle sci-fi shenanigans, but the rote result remains decidedly earthbound. Tyro helmer Dave Green wears his ’80s-era Amblin inspirations on his sleeve in this good-hearted “E.T.”-meets-“Chronicle” hybrid, which never quite finds its own voice. A little picture bravely expected to enter the summer wide-release skirmish a few days after the latest “Transformers” installment, “Echo” looks likely to get steamrolled at the box office by more substantial studio product.

Developed and produced by Disney under a cloud of secrecy as the “Untitled Wolf Adventure” back in summer 2012, the relatively low-budget pic was quietly sold to Relativity last year when the Mouse House reportedly didn’t know what to do with it. Those concerns appear to have been well founded, based on the finished product’s likable but low-wattage cast and disappointingly one-dimensional approach to story and character.

Although the film was directed by Green and written by Henry Gayden, the found-footage conceit positions what we’re watching as the work of budding filmmaker Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley of “The X Factor”), who utilizes multiple cameras (including one hidden in a pair of glasses) to record every minute with his two best buddies: foster kid Alex (Teo Halm) and “acquired taste” Munch (Reese Hartwig). The three teens face their last days together in a suburban Nevada development scheduled to be demolished by a highway expansion project, but they’re distracted from the pending separation by an intriguing techno-mystery. Inexplicably scrambled cell-phone displays (“It looks like your phone barfed on the screen,” cracks Tuck) are the first clue something is amiss, and the shy yet savvy Munch determines that the source of the problem lies somewhere in the desert.

Popular on Variety

After formulating a plan to keep their parents in the dark, the trio sneak out at night and make their grand discovery. A pint-sized robotic alien has crash-landed in their neighborhood and can’t set off for home until it’s collected all its missing parts. It can, however, communicate through beeps (once for yes, twice for no) and guide the boys on their quest to help. The search leads to a series of less-than-thrilling setpieces, including pitstops at a local bar and an underage house party attended by Tuck’s sneering older brother. Nervous parents shouldn’t worry; that’s about as risque as the squeaky-clean pic gets. For better and for worse, there’s nothing to match the crass comedy of the film’s spiritual cousin “The Goonies,” or the darker developments of something like “Gremlins.”

Ultimately, “Echo” is even less edgy than “E.T.,” though it remains firmly indebted to the Steven Spielberg classic above all other influences. To that end, while motormouthed Tuck initially appears to be the lead, the focus gradually shifts to the more Elliott-like Alex. He’s the one who bonds most strongly with the stranded extraterrestrial, dubbed Echo by the boys (after Tuck’s suggestions of Master Blaster and Space Ninja are rejected), and becomes its most protective caretaker.

One doesn’t need to go too far back to find a superior Spielberg homage: J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was released the summer before “Earth to Echo” commenced production, and even that film’s ardent detractors would have to admit it’s far more engaging and full-bodied than what Green and Gayden can muster here. While the three young leads are appealing and natural, with precious few traces of cloying kid thesping, their roles remain underdeveloped and one-note throughout. That makes any attempts at emotional resonance through the tropes of boyhood friendships or Alex’s lost-boy connection with Echo perfunctory at best.

Even worse is the awkward effort to shoehorn in a female presence in the form of rebellious popular girl Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt). She’s treated purely as window dressing following a dramatic introduction arguing with her traditionalist parents. At one point Tuck even excises an entire romantic-leaning scene featuring Emma because she’s “annoying” — it’s the only time he manipulates the footage to that degree. Adults similarly don’t factor into the mix in any significant way. Jason Gray-Stanford earns the most screen time for a grown-up as a shady construction worker who knows more about Echo’s link to the neighborhood than he lets on. Though he’s theoretically a villain, the stubbornly low stakes prevent the character from ever becoming much of a threat.

That leaves the undeniably adorable Echo  looking like a cross between Wall-E and the robotic owl Bubo from 1981’s “Clash of the Titans”  to emerge as the film’s most dynamic presence in just a handful of scenes. Designed by 19-year-old Ross Tran and brought to life by an assortment of vfx houses, the only explanation for why we don’t see more of the endearing alien’s antics onscreen must be budgetary.

Presumably that’s also the primary reason for d.p. Maxime Alexandre’s occasionally nauseating handheld camerawork, which  in what has become a hallmark of the found-footage genre — often obscures the action better than it captures it. (The easier to disguise what we’re not actually seeing.) There’s one unimpeded and impressively executed money shot when Echo disassembles and reassembles an oncoming semi-trailer truck to avoid a head-on collision. Otherwise, the most winning visual wrinkle is a few glimpses from Echo’s p.o.v., though how Tuck received that footage to include in his movie is not exactly clear. He sure found a dynamite sound team, as Echo’s beeps and whirls and the more standard action-based contributions of the audio department rep the standout in a generally OK tech package.

A post-credits tag suggests the story isn’t over yet, but given Echo’s already protracted journey to the screen, anyone expecting a speedy return could be in for quite a long wait.

Film Review: 'Earth to Echo'

Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, June 4, 2004. (In Los Angeles Film Festival — Family Screenings and Events.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Relativity Media release of a Panay Films production. Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Andrew Panay. Executive producers, Tucker Tooley, Ron Burkle, Jason Colbeck, Mark B. Johnson, Robbie Brenner, Jack Kavanaugh, Dave Miller. Co-producers, Adam Blum, Kenneth Halsband.

Crew:

Directed by Dave Green. Screenplay, Henry Gayden; story, Gayden, Andrew Panay. Camera (Technicolor, HD), Maxime Alexandre; editors, Crispin Struthers, Carsten Kurpanek; music, Joseph Trapanese; music supervisor, Bob Bowen; production designer, Kasra Farahani; art director, Richard Bloom; set decorator, Missy Parker; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound (Dolby Digital/DATASAT), Harrison D. Marsh; supervising sound editor, Ronald Eng; re-recording mixers, Leslie Shatz, Colette Dahanne, Eng, John M. Chalfant; Echo design, Ross Tran; special effects, Legacy Effects, James Alan Scott; visual effects supervisor, Mitchell Drain; visual effects, Shade, Base, Bemo, FutureDeluxe VFX, Comen VFX, Prime Focus; stunt coordinators, Chris O'Hara, Keith Campbell, Scott Rogers, Ben Bray; associate producer, Jared Iacino; assistant director, Stephen Hagen; second unit director, Rogers; casting, Randi Hiller, Tamara Notcutt.

With: Teo Halm, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Linnea Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford.

More Film

  • Lee Byung-hun stars in "The Man

    Lee Byung-hun’s ‘Man Standing Next’ Secures 2020 Asia Theatrical Releases (EXCLUSIVE)

    Showbox’s political drama “The Man Standing Next” has secured releases in multiple territories in Asia. The film was picked up by Falcon for Indonesia, The Klockworx for Japan, Viva Communications for the Philippines, Shaw Renters for Singapore and by Moviecloud for Taiwan. Release dates in each territory have yet to be confirmed. Set 40 days [...]

  • Lulu Wang and Zhao Shuzhen'The Farewell'

    Zhao Shuzhen on Stealing Scenes in Her First American Movie, 'The Farewell'

    A year ago, 76-year-old actor Zhao Shuzhen shot her first American movie, “The Farewell,” based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s very personal family story. In November, Shuzhen found herself making her first visit to the States, where she earned standing ovations from audiences and posed for pictures with stars like Robert Pattinson at parties. Then she [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Director Lorene Scafaria

    'Hustlers' DP Todd Banhazl Discusses How Not to Shoot With the Male Gaze

    Cinematographer Todd Banhazl had to rethink conventional wisdom in shooting Jennifer Lopez starrer “Hustlers.” What sort of approach did you and director Lorene Scafaria discuss in terms of how you were going to shoot the women and create these strong images of strippers? From the beginning, we talked about this idea of control and the [...]

  • A Hidden Life Movie

    Film News Roundup: Terrence Malick's 'A Hidden Life' Screened at Vatican Film Library

    In today’s film news roundup, “A Hidden Life” is shown at the Vatican, “Limerence” finds a home, Dave Baustista’s “My Spy” moves, and the DGA honors two veteran members. VATICAN SCREENING Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” received a rare private screening at the Vatican Film Library this week. Popular on Variety The movie centers on [...]

  • Wet Season

    'Wet Season' Star Yeo Yann Yann on the Need for Quality Chinese-Language Films

    Malaysia’s Yeo Yann Yann wiped away tears that weren’t purely of joyous triumph just minutes after receiving the 2019 Golden Horse Award for best actress in Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s “Wet Season.” The film plays in the New Chinese Cinema section of this week’s International Film Festival & Awards (IFFAM). Emotion welled up as she [...]

  • Wolf Totem

    Juben Productions Stretches From Peter Chan to Chinese Zombies

    Beijing Juben Productions has taken over rights to the popular “Wolf Totem” novel from China Film Group and is working on a sequel to be delivered in 2021 or Chinese New Year 2022. It also has a zombie film up its sleeve, as well as a British co-production about Shakespeare and a Chinese drama with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content