The 80s were a magical time for family entertainment. After the titanic success of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg founded the production company Amblin and started cranking out a series of suburban fantasy films about kids and teens from broken families going on genre movie adventures. The titles Spielberg produced in this run include Gremlins, The Goonies, Back To The Future, and Batteries Not Included. It was an incredible slate of films that burrowed their way into the imagination of every impressionable child and teen of the era. Given those films’ continued success, other studios started copying the Amblin model which led to some fantastic films like Explorers and a ton of crap like Mac & Me or Flight Of The Navigator. As always, Hollywood overexposure killed the trend, but not before Amblin essentially created a genre that remained fondly remembered through nostalgia. When the generation of kids who grew up in the Amblin era started making their own films, Amblin homages slowly started to slip out. JJ Abrams’ Super 8 was the biggest and boasted the Spielberg stamp of approval as producer, while smaller efforts like Monster House kept the Amblin heart pumping. None of the Amblin homages have been as good as the originals, but every time they pop up they prove just what a reliable formula Spielberg created at his populist peak. Now we have Earth To Echo, the perhaps inevitable found footage Amblin homage and thankfully the movie turned out to be much better than expected.
Unsurprisingly, it’s about a group of outsider tweens living in the suburbs who go on an adventure. As usual, the tweens are cast to type. There’s the leader Tuck (Astro) who holds the group together and films everyone with his various cameras, there’s Alex (Teo Halm) the adopted kid with rage/abandonment issues, there’s the token techno geek Munch (Reese Hartwig), and eventually there’s a token girl/love interest tossed in named Emma (Ella Wahlestedt). As usual in this genre, their families are all functionally dysfunctional. They’ve got issues, but nothing so tragic as to deeply upset the target audience. Just enough to give potential viewers from broken homes something to identify with. The plot kicks off when the evil land developers destroying the kids’ suburban paradise start acting strange and everyone’s cell phones go silly. Munch figures out that the damaged phones are some sort of radar, so the three boys decide to spend their last night together in the neighborhood following around the phone radar and filming it on their prosumer cameras. Turns out the radar points them to an adorable little alien robot, who needs help rebuilding his ship so that he can return home. The boys decide to help and over the course of the night they bicker, deepen their friendships, fall in love with the robot, fall in love with Emma, and dodge evil government agents on their bicycles. Sound familiar?
Well, it should. First time director Dave Green and his screenwriter Henry Gayden are clearly massive fans of the Amblin era and they’ve created a feature length homage featuring the amicably damaged kids from Explorers, the emotional arc of E.T., and a cutie pie alien robot straight out of Batteries Not Included. Obviously, the movie doesn’t win points for originality, but as a loving callback to a beloved era of family entertainment the flick works like gangbusters. Green and Gayden know just how much characterization is needed to make their audience care, when to slip in the action scenes that feel unexpected, how to make their viewers fall in love with a little floating hunk of metal, and how to pace the movie so that it never wears out its welcome. The found footage conceit works well and it’s surprising to think this is the first film about tweens filming themselves given that happens constantly these days. And just like Chronicle (which make no mistake, is a far superior film), the handycam aesthetic makes the CGI effects feel more grounded, unexpected, and even a little magical. It’s an endlessly charming little gem and a nice throwback for younger audiences who simply don’t get to see movies like this in theaters anymore.
Now, all that justified praise being said, there’s no sense in pretending that Earth To Echo is even remotely perfect. The closest point of comparison is the deeply imperfect Super 8 and Earth To Echo has just as many problems, they’re just different. Even though the first person found footage genre always carries an element of ambiguity about its fantasy elements given that it, by design, never follows the cops or scientist at the center of the conflict, Earth To Echo’s plot is frustratingly vague. We never really know what the alien represents, why the government agents is determined to catch it (beyond the fact that they are like totally evil), or what the significance of the whole narrative is supposed to be. Even more of a problem is the dialogue written for the kids, which is frequently wooden and unnatural. Again, that’s a staple of kids movies, but particularly frustrating here given that the handicam naturalism central to the movie’s style only draws more attention to it. Then there’s the general issue of familiarity. This isn’t an Amblin homage that toys with the formula in any way. If you figure out what style of movie you’re watching in the first five minutes, you can pretty much guess every plot twist and character arc from there. So, Earth To Echo has plenty of problems, but what it gets right is so charming, exciting, and nostalgic that it’s hard to be bothered by any of that until after the credits roll. It’s nice just to see a contemporary kids movie that isn’t an adaptation of a pre-existing novel, comic book, toy, or juice box and remember a time when the movie used to come before the spin off merchandising. Hopefully kids will get to experience more of those again someday.