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Isn’t he cute.

There’s this subgenre to kids’ movies and science fiction where one or more kids befriend an alien. The most iconic of these movies is E.T. and, honestly, it’s never really been matched. It remains the pinnacle of the genre. A few years ago, JJ Abrams took a literal approach to updating the subgenre with Super 8, closely emulating the tone and texture of E.T. but ultimately failing to evoke that same soft magic.

It’s possible that E.T. will maintain its crown for some time to come, especially because the world has moved on. That said, Earth to Echo perhaps comes the closest. If I had to attribute it to any one aspect, it’d be that Echo boils the formula down to essentials. It eschews the distractions of, say, Transformers (which, believe it or not, is also part of this genre) and doesn’t bother with Spielberg either. Earth to Echo is very much its own thing.

Earth to Echo is, like Chronicle, a found-footage movie about kids dealing with the extraordinary. It feels a little like Chronicle, really, and embraces the same proliferation of recording and communications technology (videophone, etc) that the next crop of adolescents will grow up with. Echo, the alien, is barely in the movie and features more as a symbol and catalyst than a full character. This doesn’t hamper the movie, though, as its focus on the three main kids and their friendship is strong enough to carry the movie.

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It sort of looks like a big dildo, I know.

In a Nevada suburb live three friends: Tuck (Astro), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig). Their neighborhood is being bought up and sold off so a freeway can be constructed. Tuck is the narrator and documentarian of the group, owning a pile of cameras he uses to record their adventures and maintain a memory of them as the situation means they’ll ultimately have to part ways. After he introduces his friends, Tuck tells us that things have been a little weird in their suburb for a while, especially with phones that are producing strange electrostatic images.

As an excuse for one last adventure together, they follow the images by comparing them to a map of the Nevada desert. They track it and find Echo, a tiny owl-like alien who desperately needs their help. Echo can communicate through beeps and lights but needs their camera phones to see and to tell them how to help him. Because he is bio-mechanical, Echo needs his vehicle or capsule to be repaired before he has the strength to return home with his larger intergalactic spaceship.

The movie therefore follows a sort of scavenger hunt model where, in this one night, the kids have to track down Echo’s missing pieces while evading their parents and the somewhat sinister “construction workers” who seem entirely too interested in what’s messing up peoples’ phones and causing all the local weirdness.

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Eventually, Echo starts getting better.

Found-footage is a filmmaking technique (I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gimmick anymore) that can be divisive, but I think movies like Chronicle and Earth to Echo show how it can be rooted in character. In Chronicle, Andrew uses cameras to hold the world at bay. In Echo, Tuck and his friends use them to hold on to each other, knowing that their time together is coming to an end. Alongside this, which I think is an admirable use of the technique really, there’s that found-footage can be used to mark generation. By that I mean how, even more than in Chronicle, it feels normal for Tuck and his friends to be into cameras, phones, and tech. They’re thirteen year olds in 2014 and this sort of thing captures that idea just as well as the kids playing D&D in E.T. captures their moment in time.

Earth to Echo’s strongest suit, though, is not how well it uses found-footage. Rather, it’s how well the movie builds rapport between the characters and the audience. Each of the kids gets time to be a full character, even if some of the context they’re given is simplistic or familiar. This means that they have family dynamics, backstories, flaws, and virtues and it’s all accessible and important. I was surprised by how well it worked, really, and how seamlessly it’s all communicated to the audience.

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The movie couldn’t have been very expensive, but they get a lot of mileage out of the VFX.

I was also surprised by how the dynamics of the trio were allowed to be different than expected, with relation to their role in the movie. I also like that the movie shook things up. For example, Tuck seems like the natural “main” character out of the three, who will have the largest connection to the events as they transpire. That’s not the case here. It’s Alex, an adopted kid with deep abandonment issues and masked vulnerabilities, who forges the strongest connection with Echo. Tuck winds up being the narrator, more than anything, with Munch providing a great deal of the comic relief and neutral voice of reason to balance his more passionate friends. Beyond this, the inclusion of a fourth kid, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), goes as far as Echo does in exploding the dynamics as we’ve seen them and adding new dimension and depth to all the characters. And that’s really what this movie is all about: exploring the dynamics of this three-way friendship and why it’s worthwhile even in the shadow of its ending.

Unfortunately Emma isn’t in the movie as much as the lads, but even so she gets a similar respect and attention which manifests as contextualization. She’s a privileged kid with overly proper parents, but she craves something more and she’s got nerve and strength of character underneath the prim image. Simple, right? Nothing new, right? But it’s the way the movie rolls this stuff into itself rather than stopping to dwell or emphasize that works so well for it. This stuff just feels natural and that the kids are all pretty good actors keeps it that way throughout.

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Out of context, this picture is sort of odd and hilarious and symbolic.

Earth to Echo is a very gratifying movie to watch, as a parent. It’s smart and poised enough to give something to the adults in the audience while also respecting the intelligence and imagination of the kids. It may not make you feel nostalgic for E.T. (not that it intends to do this), but it’ll certainly make you feel a sense of loss for your own childhood friendships. The adventures, the promises, and the stubborn refusal to admit it’s all going to end someday. That’s strong stuff, and presented here with a good mix of passion. Earth to Echo is largely about the acceptance that things have to change, so what’s important is doing what you can while you can.

Though it’s a pretty great movie, Earth to Echo is probably going to be overlooked. It has almost no buzz, after all, and I think the trailers made the concept feel a little more “me too” than the movie turns out to be. If anything, the found-footage meets kids-befriend-alien marriage is just a chrysalis this movie embodies. That emphasizes how packaging, technique, and so on rarely matter so much as a good story well told.

In other words, don’t let that stuff get in the way. Go see Earth to Echo.

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