Earth to Echo is a slender kiddie flick about a quartet of preteens and their palm-sized alien pal that's at once bland, well-intentioned, and utterly terrifying regarding the mental development of modern children. As in the most honest kids films, our five-foot heroes admit to being isolated, unhappy, and cowed by the adult world. Their Nevada suburb will be torn down tomorrow, scattering these three best friends — braggadocios Tuck (the one-named Astro from X-Factor), chubby and cowardly Munch (Reese Hartwig), and unthreateningly handsome Alex (Teo Halm) — to different schools, and plucking the cute blonde (Ella Wahlestedt) they all crush on out of their universe before she even knew they shared one.
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On their last night together, the guys dupe their parents with a fake slumber party, reroute the grownups' incoming calls to Munch's cell, and bike off into the desert to track down a blinking treasure mysteriously beamed to their smartphone maps. The big-mouthed Tuck, a tyke who's always blurting his own name like the abandoned son of Kanye West, has brought along a video camera, as his interest in the quest itself is dwarfed by the possibility of shooting the next viral hit. After all, what's the point of meeting an alien if there's no record of it on YouTube?
Director Dave Green is less a feature filmmaker than a juggler of screens. The found-footage gimmick—Earth to Echo's background canvas — is simply a gateway that allows for the visual shorthand of the boys shoving their phones at the lens. Instead of plunging into the woods, they stare at their GPS while swashbuckling through strip malls and the occasional small-town Main Street. Occasionally, Green zooms out for the Google Earth view of their quest, complete with an arrow pointing toward their location. The result feels both techno-immediate and emotionally distancing.
Earth to Echo
Earth to EchoDirected by Dave Green. Written by Henry Gayden. Starring Teo Halm, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Linnea Wahlestedt and Jason Gray-Stanford.
At least their alien feels at home in this digital new world. Though it's from outer space, it's retrofitted for Radio Shack: It speaks in ringtones and uses their phone cameras for eyes. Forget the old-man wrinkles of E.T.: Earth to Echo seems to have found through focus-testing that children no longer want blood or bile; they want sanitized bleeps. Instead of wooing their discovery with Reese's Pieces, these kids dote over his battery charge. The thing is so cute they inevitably fall in love, but at the same time, we suspect they can't quite accept that it's sentient. In a dramatic moment, one boy cries, "Please, you have to work!" — not "Please, you have to live!"
Earth to Echo has scant thrills on its own terms, but is deeply disturbing in the margins. Without chagrin or alarm bells, it posits that the youth of today are useless without their pocket computers: When swiping a getaway car, the first thing they do is Google how to drive. The film's final thesis is that distance between friends, be it suburban or planetary, doesn't matter, as long as you can text.