You've seen them before: a strong-jawed hero with a murky past and uncertain future; his level-headed sidekick, balancing emotion with common sense; and a chubby tagalong who requires double the rescuing and contributes at least that much comic relief.
The protagonist in this summer's sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo isn't a single character; it's a group of friends plunged into extraordinary circumstances when they find a stranded alien in a Nevada desert.
But Hollywood friendships come in fours, you thought. Don't worry. A girl shows up soon, off-putting at first in her arrogance and beauty, but accepted into the fellowship when she saves the crew with a surprising display of bravery and wit.
Like I said, you've seen it before.
Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are best friends in the heartwarming way middle-school boys bond before they grow into fraternity brothers. It's their last night together before a highway construction project will destroy their neighborhood. The boys follow a mysterious iPhone map to the middle of the desert, where they find the lost and fragile Echo, a sort of floating metallic kitten with glowing blue eye-screens.
A series of beeps, flashes and adorable gazes convinces the gang that Echo needs to go home to his planet, but his spaceship is broken. The rest of the night is spent biking through Nevada and avoiding malicious scientists, as Echo wordlessly guides the friends through homes, bars and pawn shops for the parts he needs to rebuild his ship.
The movie is shot as "found footage," a documentary supposedly made (and occasionally narrated) by Tuck. The downside of realism is 90 minutes of wobbly shots and nauseating jump cuts. The upside is that it eliminates the need for any substantial dialogue when the boys can convincingly repeat "dude, dude, dude!" to express their disbelief.
The visuals are impressive. Echo is fun to watch, with human tendencies like Pixar's Wall-E, that cause audiences to wonder how a chunk of CGI metal can melt the human heart. His technological powers come to fruition when he lights up an arcade to create a distraction, freeing Alex from detainment by a security guard. But a Transformers-esque slow-motion dismantling of a semi-truck hurtling toward the boys feels out of place, especially as it was saved for the movie's final 15 minutes.
Echo stays squeaky clean, even for a PG rating. There aren't any death-defying stunts or sloppy make-out scenes, and despite an evening of escaping law enforcement, the only rules the friends break are that they are too young to be driving or entering establishments that serve alcohol.
In fact, the film spotlights the kids' ages, summed up by Tuck's ending monologue: "When you're a kid, you think you're invisible. You think you can't make a difference," he says over a closing montage of desert sunrises. "We're not kids anymore. We know now that we can do anything."
It's no Goonies or Stand by Me, as far as group chemistry goes, but the cast of newcomers conveys a convincing camaraderie. Alex, a foster child, bonds with Echo over their shared sense of displacement, but the relationship can't match the extraterrestrial emotion of Steven Spielberg's genre pioneer E.T. (1982).
Echo makes for a refreshing family film, one where kids are encouraged to explore the world around them and use technology wisely. But while cast and crew promoted Echo as a return to the lost genre of live-action family films, it lacks what that genre so desperately needs for success: novelty.
MovieStyle on 07/04/2014
Print Headline: Earth to Echo