First-time feature director Dave Green and first-time feature screenwriter Henry Gayden have a few things in common. They created the six-episode TV series “Zombie Roadkill” a few years back, and they’re obviously fans of at least three specific films: Spielberg’s overly praised “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” the 1981 version of “Clash of the Titans” and the more recent, unfairly underrated “Chronicle.”
“E.T.” was about a kid’s relationship with a stranded alien creature trying to go home; “Chronicle” used the shaky-cam, found-footage genre to celebrate youth and camaraderie and adventure; “Clash of the Titans?” Let’s just say that one of the few mistakes Gayden and Green made in “Earth to Echo” was to fashion their stranded alien who meets up with three kids on an adventure in the shape of a little owl – a little robotic owl that looks exactly like the stupid robotic owl that was in “Titans.” Maybe if they made it a grouse. ...
The thing the filmmakers did really well was make a movie they probably wanted to see when they were kids. “Earth to Echo” is an offbeat, funny, slightly edgy science fiction offering that features unknown young actors playing 13-year-old kids who are making their own movie. Perhaps it would be better to call it their own record of an adventure they set out on over the long last night that they’ll spend together as pals.
Set in a residential community in Nevada that’s about to be torn down because a freeway is coming through, thereby displacing (more like peacefully evicting) all of the families, the story has our three heroes – Alex, Tuck, and Munch – on the evening before they’re to move off in different directions and new lives, trying to figure out why their cellphones have gone haywire, why images of “maps” have appeared on their screens.
A bike ride out to the desert has them discover a mysterious metal cylinder, the communicative owl-like thing within it, their understanding that they must help it (they name it Echo) find its lost spaceship, and finally that adventure that sends them, via regularly changing maps, to break into a private home, to a pawn shop, a biker bar, all kinds of places kids shouldn’t be.
The cool gimmick is that Tuck has decided to record it all, installing constantly running video cameras everywhere from the handlebars on his bike to the frames of his glasses. That gimmick allows viewers to be one with the characters, and the filmmakers have lucked out by finding three newcomers who are so natural and relaxed as actors – everything they do, every word they say, feels real rather than scripted.
The only other misfire, after the owl, is the inclusion of a female character named Emma, whose presence, while adding to a couple of plot twists, breaks up the male bonding thing that makes the film so endearing. There are other characters: brief glimpses of parents who are too tied up in their own lives to pay attention to their kids, orange-jacketed “construction workers” who keep showing up at inopportune times. They help to make the story work; I have no idea why Emma is there. Fortunately nothing gets too much in the way of keeping things focused on the boys knowing this is their last adventure together, and that, when morning comes, they’re going to lose their special friendship.
The humor of the film, along with its moments of absolute wonder (done on a remarkably good-looking shoestring budget), keep the inevitable ending from being too bittersweet. In fact, its end notes ring perfectly. It’s certainly a film I wish I saw when I was a kid.