Earth to Echo (2013)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, August 2014

Synopsis: Nevada, a year ago. With the construction of a new freeway due to break up their community and their friendship, 13-year-olds Alex, Tuck and Munch receive strange signals on their mobile phones that map out a location in the desert. On their last night together before moving away with their families, they bike there, and find a small, half-buried metallic capsule which lights up and beeps in response to them. As their phones direct them to more locations – a barn, a pawnshop, an arcade games warehouse, a bar, a scrap metal yard – more bits and pieces attach themselves to the capsule, and its strength increases, until a tiny, owl-like robotic alien emerges, which they dub ‘Echo’. A series of yes/no questions leads them to realise that Echo is trying to find its spaceship and get home, before the freeway ‘construction workers’ – in fact government agents – capture and destroy it. Joined by Emma, the boys escape the clutches of the G-Men – who are convinced Echo is bent on destruction – and help Echo into its spaceship, buried beneath the town. Echo leaves, Alex and Munch move away, but the four children remain long-distance friends. Tuck edits together a secret video of their adventure.

Review: “Echo, that’s what we should call it,” says 13-year-old Alex (Teo Halm) of the little robotic alien that he and his friends Tuck (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) and Munch (Reece C. Hartwig) have just discovered out in the Nevada desert, and that offers bleepy electronic reproductions of the sounds around it. Tuck would prefer to call it “something cool, like Space Ninja” – but Alex, to whom the creature seems most responsive, has the final say.

With their suburban homes about to be dug up supposedly to make way for a new freeway, these three boys are spending their last night together on an adventurous rite of passage, guided by strange signals that have appeared on their mobile phones. The boys’ bicycle-borne efforts to locate, rebuild and get Echo home while escaping the clutches of some government agents (disguised as construction workers) clearly mirror their own opposition to the demolition of their town, and their desire to reintegrate a collapsing community. As a foster child and “drifter” who has been moved from one family to another, Alex identifies particularly closely with Echo, sharing its panicky sense of abandonment and alienation, as well as a desire for a lost home. So the robot does not just duplicate ambient noise, but also the psychologies of these young people about to fall over the edge of adolescence. Its story echoes theirs.

This is not the only resonance to be found in Dave Green’s feature debut Earth To Echo, which is so overtly indebted to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film of kids on bikes, a home-seeking extra-terrestrial and shadowy G-Men that its very title might meaningfully be abbreviated to E.T. Echo. Along the way, much as Echo is reconstituted from spare parts, Green’s film takes bits from here and there to renew itself: TV’s Children of the Dogstar (1984) and Joe Dante’s Explorers (1985), which featured an alien device reassembled by children; Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), which sent young friends adventuring when their home was under threat from redevelopment; and Matthew Robbins’ Batteries Not Included (1987), which had alien bio-machines saving a building from demolition. Earth to Echo remixes all these Eighties motifs, ensuring that Alex and his friends’ contemporary escapades come with a nostalgic echo for any parents viewing the film along with their children. Meanwhile, everything we see onscreen represents Tuck’s year-later edit of Skype conversations, text messages, web searches, and the copious footage he shot at the time from various camera sources. This brings a postmodern, mediated ‘first-person’ frame to the proceedings, as well as revealing the influence of more recent films like J.J. Abrams’ E.T.-aping Super 8 (2011) and Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012) – both of which featured young friends, ‘found footage’ and alien spacecraft buried underground.

If all this sounds like a boys’ own adventure, the trio is also eventually joined by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) who, refreshingly, outsmarts her male companions and even rescues Alex when his other friends singularly fail to do so. Touches like this – and a certain bittersweetness to the ending – allow an otherwise overtly derivative film to feel as though it is still bringing something new to its reassemblage of old cinematic scrap.

Anton Bitel