[1 July 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You’re just a kid.” Tuck (Astro) is used to being dismissed because he’s only 13 years old. He’s also used to spending time alone (“I’m an acquired taste, that’s what my mom says”) and to finding his own entertainments in the suburban Nevada neighborhood where he lives. And so, as Tuck explains, he’s shooting the footage you’re watching now, mostly, jiggly close-ups of his face and those of his two best friends, Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese C. Hartwig).
More specifically, he’s shooting their last night together, because their families all have to move out of their suburban Nevada neighborhood due to a new highway construction.
Tuck spends some time introducing this found-footage-like conceit in Earth to Echo, laying out Alex’s background as a foster kid who’s been moved around and defending Munch’s brainy proclivities (“He’s a good kid: don’t just say he’s a nerd and that’s it”). He also doesn’t quite explain the temporal nuances of this Disneyfied project, namely, that this footage isn’t exactly “found”, but more assembled on the fly.
As he tells his story, rather breathlessly, and puts together images from a number of cameras, his handheld and the cell phones they all carry, as well as a couple that are attached to bicycle helmets and another hidden in a pair of eyeglasses, he doesn’t suggest that he’s looking back on the events of the boys’ last night in Nevada.
No surprise, the night is big, initiated by disruption of cell phone screens, a disruption apparently intriguing only to the kids. As their parents drift in and out of shot backgrounds, the boys come up with the web of lies usually deployed to enable such group adventures, namely, they’re all staying over at each other’s houses, a web that will be sustained, the boys imagine, because Munch rigs their phones to intercept moms’ inquiring phone calls.
Not that the inquiries will be too tough to put off: on their way out the door, the kids make one last effort to be noticed: “We’re going to ride our bikes out to the desert at night and rob a bank and go to Mexico,” says Tuck, “Maybe even start a new life.” From across the room, his parents, deep in their own discussion, nod. Mm-hmm honey, okay.
With this classic imprimatur, the kids embark on their own adventure, which takes them into that desert where, they discover, a cute little alien has crashed. It turns out that this alien, who is after some discussion christened “Echo”, only wants to go home, a desire that resonates for these boys, about to be moved out of the latest places they’ve called homes. It’s this idea—along with the kids shooting their own footage—that might be understood as Earth to Echo‘s update on its most obvious inspiration, E.T. (along with a host of other ‘80s movies). If the kids in Spielberg’s era felt unseen by distracted adults in their suburban neighborhoods, at least they felt unseen in suburban neighborhoods.
This update is visible all over Earth to Echo, not least in the technologies that makes this journey so specifically theirs. Over footage from his bike helmet, headed into the darkness on a desert highway, Tuck says, “We were miles from home, no one in the world knew it. No one said, it but we were scared. We were on our own.” Luckily, they do have their technologies, their phones and GPS systems, and so they not only record what they do, but also make plans and pursue the scattered bits of tech that Echo needs.
When the plot needs them to bring a girl into their adventure, they can do that too, sneaking into the bedroom of a classmate, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt). When she discovers them and insists they bring her along—because, of course, she’s actually really cool and not the prissy “mannequin” the boys guessed her to be—she provides a helpful expertise in lying to adults, a skill the boys manage fitfully, at best.
Emma’s own skill proves particularly useful when the kids are confronted by the one adults who does actually see them, the Peter Coyote-like Dr. Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford), a scientist of some sort in the employ of the US government. He’s chasing Echo before the boys know about Echo, and though he’s only briefly put off by Emma’s elaborate act as the beset daughter of a couple of neglectful addicts, the boys are enchanted. She’s fantastic, this girl, creatively deceptive in ways they, in their adorable lunkheadedness, had not yet imagined.
Emma’s insertion into the boys’ plot evokes memories of the girl Elliot kisses in science class (Erika Eleniak), or maybe Elle Fanning in Super 8: she’s dazzling and distracting and she focuses the boys’ romantic inklings. She’s also old enough—in the interactions she actually has with her parents, in her immediately accurate assessment of unbelievable situations and grasp of what matters—that she helps the boys do what they need to do, not only to complete their own individual stories, but also to see the value of others’ stories. (And yes, this white girl also serves as kissable object for one of the white boys.)
As much as Emma is surely welcome she does, in the end, mostly serve the same function as her new friends, which is to say, they’re kids trying to be understood. Earth to Echo loses track of this good idea sometimes, as it becomes too entangled in its CGI alien business (this is, not incidentally, a trouble point in Super 8 too). The kids here, losing their homes, find themselves in their self-images, where they can be more than “just” kids.