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Not gonna lie: it was slim pickings for new movies at the box office this weekend, Independence Day be damned. Between “true story” horror flick Deliver Us from Evil, “working class” comedy Tammy, and “E.T. with cell phones” kids’ movie Earth to Echo, audiences brought in the worst box office results for a 4th of July weekend since the 80s, and I can hardly blame them. But a job’s a job, so, dutifully, we went to see the least seemingly odious of the three.

Earth to Echo centers around a trio of young boys whose cell phones are mysteriously disrupted. Upon investigation, they realize the disruption is actually a map, and decide—on the last night they will spend together, thanks to imminent freeway construction—to ride out into the desert in pursuit of the map’s buried treasure, whatever it may be.



The Savage Take

Earth to Echo is an appropriate title for this movie: memories of much better films echo throughout its scant 89 minutes. E.T., The Goonies, Explorers, Super 8; they’re all there, just below the surface, but Earth to Echo never seems to match their excitement or sense of adventure.

It may seem unfair to criticize this film on nostalgia for others, but there’s a reason those classics continue to resonate with people. When you’re a kid, every bike ride outside of your neighborhood feels like an epic quest—doubly so at night. Successful suburban adventure films turn that up to eleven, harnessing the whimsical sense of danger and freedom kids feel as they bravely ride into the unknown. Earth to Echo doesn’t amplify anything. It just shows you the bike ride.

We’re given three characters it’s impossible to care about, plus one you desperately want to. The narrator is a typical latchkey kid with just enough attitude to be mildly amusing but not to be memorable The token girl is given a few seconds of family drama, but that thread is dropped before it’s even tugged upon. The safety-conscious mama’s boy is just there to remind us that they should all be in bed.

Earth to Echo doesn't amplify anything. It just shows you the bike ride.

That leaves us with foster kid Alex, whose abandonment issues are never explored. It’s a missed opportunity, as he forms the closest bond with the shaved space Furby, Echo. Their mutual longing for home might have strengthened this film’s plot, but Echo itself gets so little screen time that the two never have a chance to build a tangible relationship. Instead, Earth to Echo takes all those boring feelings and crams them into an overly-long goodbye in the last act.

I do have one positive thing to say. I’m not generally a fan of the “found footage” technique, but Earth to Echo plays with that style in some ways I think it deserves a little extra credit for. One nice touch is the inclusion of Google Map segues similar to the connect-the-dots map wipes indicating travel in the Indiana Jones films. It seemed silly to me at first, but looking back, I have to admit that it was a clever way of modernizing a classic cinematic shortcut.

It’s not enough to save this film, though. While I didn’t hate it, I just couldn’t find any reason to like it, and I defy anyone else to. If the kids are bored and clamoring to see a movie, you could do worse. But, you could also do much better.



The Courteous Rejoinder

Earth to Echo, just like its titular alien, floats along, a few inches above the ground, but can’t support its own weight over the open air. There are the makings of an interesting film, here, but, like Echo, none of them seem to be able to survive for long outside of whatever shell they’re hiding in.

Found footage is obviously a problem. I’m sure that, as a technique, it has its defenders, but I’m not one of them. The amateur cinematographer captures all the proceedings on his camcorder, GoPro, and “spy glasses,” which means his family is pretty rich, ‘cause he’s carting around a couple thousand dollars of equipment everywhere he goes. I can accept that all these kids have smart phones, but that’s a little hard to swallow.

What found footage gains in realism—this is how they’d “actually” capture this footage, guys!—it loses in storytelling. I don’t want to excuse what may just be bad scriptwriting, but maybe if we’d had an omniscient camera eye, we’d have gotten more than just a fight between the girl and her parents, peered around a corner, or a moment when the narrator’s family won’t acknowledge him, no matter what ridiculous things he says.

I don’t know if they thought that was enough to pass for engaging character development in children’s feeble minds, but it doesn’t pass in mine. And that gets to the root of the problems that Earth to Echo has. For one thing, it doesn’t give kids enough credit. “Good enough for children” is the mark of a bad movie, I don’t care what it is.

Treating kids like idiots is a great recipe for a poor product.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a kid, and I remember this kind of nonsense. You think that kids don’t know when you’re talking down to them? They know. And it’s not hard to figure out that treating kids like idiots (don’t get me wrong: kids are dumb plenty of the time, but that doesn’t mean you treat them that way) is a recipe for a poor product.

Just take a look at some of my favorite “children’s” movies, which also happen to be some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. Pixar’s Up, for example, spends its prologue telling the simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-melting story of love found, lived, and lost. That’s some heavy stuff. Or take The Iron Giant, a criminally overlooked classic, which culminates in a moment of selfless sacrifice that makes it a better Superman movie than anything made in the fifteen years since its release.

These are movies that treat children as humans, and their child characters as young humans—still figuring out the ins and outs of said humanity, but trying their best—and as a result, they create an experience that is enjoyed by all humans for all time. Earth to Echo wishes it could be that, but it’s in another galaxy.



Where Do We Go from Here?

We've already given you a fine selection of great "children's" movies, including E.T., The Goonies, Up, and The Iron Giant. Go see any of them. Seen them before? See them again. That's the magic of classics: they never get old.