Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Science fiction adventures rarely focus on characters as much as Earth to Echo. It’s a surprisingly resonant feature that emphasizes the togetherness and foundation of friendship vital to overcoming adversities in childhood. At times, its ambition reaches the heights of iconic children’s adventures like The Goonies and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (to which comparisons are almost necessary, since the film borrows heavily from those ’80s classics in both structure and theme). Yet the film ultimately settles on a story that doesn’t want to deliver a strong social message that its opening moments allude to, nor does it aim to make profound realizations about technology and extra-terrestrial life. Instead, it’s a straightforward tale about loners growing up in the same neighborhood that face the end of their life as they know it: not the end of the world, but the end of their friendships.
The trio at the heart of the story spends every waking moment together: Alex (Teo Halm) is a foster child that feels isolated due to his parents having a new baby; Tuck (Astro) has an abrasive older brother that gets the family’s attention while they focus on moving away; and Munch (Reese Hartwig) is the techie nerd that loves dearly but couldn’t act normal if his life depended on it. They are all likable presences primarily because they are kind-hearted kids who focus on helping and supporting each other. One sweet moment has Munch saying that he can’t lie to his mom because, after her divorce, she’s had enough men lying to her. The boys soon find out, however, that the time spent in their neighborhood may be short-lived due to the construction of a highway over the area of land on which they live. These construction workers won’t let them know why it’s happening, just that it is and they need to move soon or else they’ll be forcefully evicted.
Before their last night, they discover that people’s cell phones are acting up and showing a digital map to some place in the desert. Their curiosity spikes. They decide to take a journey to discover what exactly this is, soon finding parts that help them put together a mechanical alien that they name Echo. This extra-terrestrial is hurt and needs help getting back to his ship. They discover that there are others out there looking for Echo and hoping to use him for scientific research to understand why these aliens are on Earth. If the premise sounds like science-fiction, it’s surprisingly a character-driven effort that emphasizes melodrama over large visual effects. That may be a disappointment for some, but upon viewing it’s a refreshingly balanced take on a topic that we’ve seen many other times, and in better films, I might add. But the characters make the film: Hartwig brings Munch a tenderness and compassionate insight that goes past the whacky sidekick persona usually employed in children’s movies. And the decision to have the make-up of the group be a foster child, an African-American, and an overweight outcast shows the increasingly changing landscape of the American family.
Yet despite the film’s ambitious first half set-up, the second half is marked by a lack of emotional and narrative drive. The story bogs itself down in plot points rather than actual stakes for the characters and their actions, leading to a distanced viewing that feels inconsequential. Science fiction can usually comment on society in some affecting way, which the first ten minutes promise remarkably: the inconsiderate destruction of human lives at the cost of a freeway is a stark realization of our times and the necessity to expand. But that promise falls away with disregard for that social insight in favor of Echo-driven storytelling. The film will certainly please kids and hit the right comedic notes for both the little ones and adults. Most importantly, despite its narrative and tonal flaws, Earth to Echo cares deeply about its characters and their friendship. However distant it may seem emotionally in its second half, there’s a shred of compassionate storytelling that feels refreshing amidst much of the pessimism in mainstream film.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)