Hollywood’s love affair with Steven Spielberg has been a long one (about 20 years too long), kicking off with the unexpected success of Jaws in 1975. Two years later, Star Wars changed the Hollywood system forever. The interesting, weird, small productions of New Hollywood, that inheritor of French New Wave cool, was tossed out the window in order to worship a new god: the blockbuster. And Spielberg’s hallowed career exploded along with this new form, as he took the helm of such projects as Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and most notably (for this review) E.T. the Extraterrestrial.
Director: Dave Green
Producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Andrew Panay
Writers: Henry Gayden, Andrew Panay
Cinematographer: Maxime Alexandre
Editors: Carsten Kurpanek, Crispin Struthers
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Cast: Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlstedt, Jason Gray-Stanford
Premiere: June 14, 2014 – Los Angeles Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 2, 2014
US Distributor: Relativity Media
Spielberg has long been the subject of misplaced hero worship, with directors like J.J. Abrams doing everything they can to become him, but Earth to Echo is so deep in Spielberg homage it nearly goes straight into drooling cronyism. The film follows a handful of kids in a Las Vegas suburb that is soon to be demolished for a new highway overpass (see The Goonies); on their last night together, they find a strange alien creature who needs their help to get to its spaceship (a la E.T.). Meanwhile, they are being hunted by bad guy highway developers whose motivations are a little murky except for the fact that they are “bad” guys.
Earth to Echo's narrator Tuck (Astro) is a kid trying his hardest to become a “YouTube star,” and the film’s structural conceit is that every shot comes from one of Tuck’s handful of video cameras. This could be innovative (although we saw the exact same shtick two years ago in Chronicle), but it is sloppily done, often used as an excuse for Blair Witch-esque shaky-cam to inject drama into otherwise boring and bland scenes. Why Tuck is so fixated on YouTube as his creative outlet is never really expressed, and all he seems to do is deliver bland monologues to the camera, but maybe that’s what it takes to make it big on YouTube.
Tuck’s companions are even less interesting. Alex (Teo Helm) is the film’s obligatory handsome white boy, a troubled foster child dealing with his heavy-handed abandonment issues, and Munch (Reese Hartwig) is a Spielberg stock character modeled on The Goonies’s Chunk; he all but does the truffle shuffle for attention. Hartwig actually does a terrific job in this terrible role, injecting quirkiness and charm into a character whose lines are abysmally reductive, and somehow making this carbon copy actually likeable. Still, the character on paper is so bland, Hartwig’s performance can only do so much. Also in their crew (for phony diversity’s sake) is Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a pretty rich girl drawn in by the cute alien.
And that brings us to Echo himself, this film’s E.T. Yet Echo lacks something that is so essential to E.T.’s humanity—his inherent grossness. While his predecessor looked like something between a hairless cat and a vacuum cleaner, this alien invader is an adorable little robot (although he insists he isn’t). Dealing with something from another world just isn’t as challenging if it looks like a familiar toy and not a weird anatomical oddity. These kids don’t have to face up to something with stomach-turning uncanniness or a mind that functions in heretofore unknown ways—they just basically meet a cute little robot with low-level superpowers. This is almost certainly deliberate since a moving, beeping Echo toy will basically sell itself to children who fall under this movie’s sway. Still (and it’s hard to believe), this movie makes you pine for a 1980’s Hollywood in which weird, interesting creatures were more commonplace, instead of these sterile CGI replacements.
What Earth to Echo does do well is genuinely adopting the perspective of its protagonists. While the diegetically justified camera angles are as contrived as they seem, they at times achieve characterization that the script can’t manage. We see where Tuck really would point his camera: at his friends, and not the phenomenal or interesting things going on around him. While this can be frustrating, since we all came here to see a spaceship and not some kid’s knees, it really hits home that this film is shot from the perspective of a child. Like Yasujiro Ozu, whose camera was almost always close to the ground, this perspectival choice is the strongest aspect in an otherwise ho-hum rip-off. This well-executed manipulation of perspective may bode well for director Dave Green’s future (this is his first feature) but it isn’t enough to pull Earth to Echo out of tedium.