Tuesday, July 15, 2014

'Earth to Echo' (2014) directed by Dave Green

It's a found footage E.T.  

That last sentence could be the most precise description of a film I've ever given, I could stop the review right there and that's all you'd need to know.  Well that and it's not as good as E.T.  Earth to Echo treats Spielberg's classic as a holy text, slavishly following the plot beat for beat: a gang of scrappy BMX riding suburban kids discover a cute alien that they need to hide from a squad of sinister, van-driving government spooks. Then again, if you're going shamelessly rip off a film then E.T. is at least a good choice and the found footage format freshens things up a bit.

Our four child protagonists are Alex (Teo Halm), Munch (Reese Hartwig), Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) and Tuck (Astro) (no really that's the actor's name).  The three boys are fast friends, but on the horizon looms disaster.  A freeway is being built on top of their cozy suburban tangle, scattering their families to the four winds.  They resolve to do something special together on the last night before they move on - and all are puzzled by the appearance of weird patterns and glyphs on their smartphones.  Realising that it's a map they head out into the desert to find where it leads where they find Echo, a cute flying robot alien thing who just wants to phone home.  The rest of the film shows the children fixing Echo, rebuilding his ship, summoning new reserves of bravery, learning about what true friendship is etc etc etc.

Unfortunately the bikes don't fly.
Trite stuff, but it's elevated by the excellent performances of the child actors.  The core of the movie is the importance of friendship and the four young actors are entirely believable as best friends with each other.  The found footage conceit means we get to see a neat divide in the character's personality - when they're aware they're being filmed they behave how they want to be perceived by the others, when they forget we see their 'real' worries and personalities.  It's a clever little advantage of the form and gives us a surprising amount of insight into these characters.

Also adding to the pile of positives is the realistic depiction of children interacting with technology.  There's a loose framing device that we're watching Tuck's YouTube channel, and the characters display an easy familiarity with technology.  Large portions of the movie are spent fixated on smartphone displays, scenes take place over video-conferencing - while technology distances the children from their parents it brings them closer to each other. This all feeds into the character of Echo, essentially a sentient piece of gadgetry.  Of course the children are the only ones that really understand him - they're the only ones entirely at ease in a digital world.

That said, Echo himself is a bit of a non-entity.  Designwise he's a robotic baby owl and to be honest, the film would largely work if he was an actual baby owl that the children had to return to his nest.  An entirely CG creation, he never quite convinces as real - and crucially we never quite believe the children are actually touching him - robbing us of the 'finger-to-finger' moment from E.T. that Earth to Echo shamelessly swipes for its poster.  Worse, being entirely CG means that Echo's every appearance drains an obviously stretched budget - resulting in the putative star of the film spending most of the runtime safely tucked away in a backpack.  

That said, buried in amongst the middling-to-average special effects there is one shot so stunning it looks as if it's airlifted in from a much higher budget film.  Echo and the children are speeding away from their aggressors.  A semi-truck bears down on them, and Echo disassembles and reassembles it.  Somewhere there's a special effects guy or girl who's showing off a bit - the visual is so good it makes everything else in the film look a little dowdier in comparison.

The found footage genre is in danger of getting a bit stale, and it's arguable that Earth to Echo would work pretty well traditionally shot.  I suspect in a few years this glut of characters running around with videocameras, screaming and not framing important things very well will be seen as a fad.  Personally, I still enjoy it - it makes scenes that much more intense, dangers is unpredictable and the characters feel in genuine peril.  Amping this up is exciting stuff - but perhaps too exciting.

In the screening I attended more than a few children had to be escorted from the cinema in tears during some of the tenser bits that faintly recall The Blair Witch Project (which I still find pants-wettingly terrifying).  It's not that this is going to turn audience's hairs white, but even I found some of the quieter moments pretty tense - the found footage technique amplifying every scary moment.

The Sunday morning I awoke to see a 10am Earth to Echo I was unreasonably hungover.  I had a splitting headache, a fuzzy mouth and aching limbs.  As my alarm beeped away I tried desperately to think of a reason not to see the movie.  Why should I drag my exhausted carcass across London to see a shameless E.T. ripoff?  I'm just about glad I did - and the film is just about worth seeing.  Echo as a character sucks and there's a tonne of questionable directorial decisions but the whole affair is saved by the performances and the occasional dab of nifty special effects.

Or you could watch E.T. on DVD.  Your call.


Earth to Echo is on general release from 18 July.

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