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It’s always convenient for a critic like me when a movie serves up a moment that encapsulates it, and Earth to Echo obliges. It happens when our pubescent protagonists meet Echo, the eponymous extra-terrestrial cute-bot around which the movie’s well-oiled plot machine revolves. They start by asking Echo questions about itself, which it answers, oddly reminiscent of Christopher Pike, in beeps: one for yes, two for no. At this key moment, which both establishes the nature of the doe-eyed space-owl we’re supposed to become attached to as well as its relationship with Our Young Heroes, the film instead has the narrator simply tell us “we talked for hours!” and leap right ahead to the next bout of shaky-camera running-jumping. Earth to Echo obsesses with the easy parts and punts on the hard parts, and its lack of effort in building character and relationships are what make it not just a letdown but a cynical, exploitative one.

Three uni-dimensional caricatures on the cusp of adolescence have one last night before their suspiciously-idyllic Nevada exurb is destroyed to make way for a freeway. In the first of a seemingly-endless series of moments that elevate telling over showing, we learn that they’re not the cool kids because our narrator says so. Seeking One Last Adventure before they’re pulled apart because Adults Don’t Understand, they stumble upon a Mysterious Signal that leads them to More Than They Bargain For. They discover a creature (which claims it’s not a robot in contrivance to all available evidence) they dub Echo in one of the movie’s countless forced and cringe-inducing moments of Big Emotion because, no joke, it mimics their ringtone.

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Echo needs their help to rebuild his ship so he can Go Home and they of course help him because he’s cool-looking or something. They spend the night schlepping around the desert seeking parts in successively-more-challenging mini-quests perfectly packaged for the inevitable video game adaptation – so much so it feels more like Earth to Echo is the adaptation of the game. Along the way, they are joined by the Cute Girl in a way that makes it painfully obvious her addition to the team was an inorganic write-in after some studio suit said something about putting tween girls in the seats. And of course there are baddies  pretending to be construction workers whose affiliation is never revealed (you can just imagine the conference call – “if it’s the government we might offend Democrats; if it’s an evil corporation we might offend Republicans!”). They are, of course, competent enough to engineer a massive conspiracy to destroy a substantial suburb (without the state legislature, national media, or Tea Party noticing or batting down an epic slew of decade-long eminent domain lawsuits) in order to ensnare an alien spaceship without being competent enough to be foiled by a quartet of Determined Youth on the Side of Good.

Each of the children has an offensive Defining Trait and an insulting Characterizing Quirk  – The pudgy one who lives with his divorced mom (Reese C. Hartwig)! The foster child who is brave (Teo Halm)! The token minority who likes cameras (Brian “Astro” Bradley)! The rich girl who spews privilege everywhere (Ella Wahlestedt)! They’d be indistinguishable from the slick CGI of the titular critter if not for the valiant performances of the child actors, whose genuine talent and efforts are the practically only thing that threatens to breathe a whiff of life into what is otherwise a hermetically-sealed marketing machine. The movie’s only real gesture towards something novel and interesting is the home-footage conceit, which once or twice even threatens to address something meaningful. In the end, though, it becomes a nausea- and headache-inducing missed opportunity, claustrophobic and epileptic without being intimate or verisimilitudinous, and forgoing the chance to really express any wonder at its setting or its title critter. Echo itself ends up a soulless MacGuffin, a prop mostly stuffed in a backpack, which makes the kids’ weepy denouement goodbye feel not just embarrassingly overwritten but truly bizarre.

It would be too easy, though thoroughly delightful, to document Earth to Echo’s limitless cheats and failures of narrative logic – but so much of that would be forgivable if it didn’t fail to establish a meaningful emotional logic. You can’t write about Earth to Echo, apparently, without saying something about E.T., but the degree to which Earth to Echo desperately wants to compare itself to Spielberg’s ’82 classic is precisely inverse to the degree that anyone involved in making the movie understands anything about why E.T. was so damn great. That movie spent most of its time and effort carefully and lovingly building a meaningful relationship between its children and its creature, saving its dramatic chase for its final moments; Earth to Echo mostly skips trying to explore or build any meaningful connection between its primaries, and botches what it doesn’t skip. Even its nods towards dealing with anything larger than the movie’s central plot beats – like race, class, gender, or our changing relationship to technology and authority – feel perfunctory at best, and more likely a product of cynical board-room attempted manipulation, like most of the movie, frankly. Earth to Echo isn’t E.T. the movie; it’s E.T. the Atari game, an exploitative piece of junk whose sole purpose is to separate parents from their money. Not that we need to bury Earth to Echo in the New Mexico desert – just avoiding it should be more than sufficient.

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