Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Cinema File #372: "Earth To Echo" Review

Not a lot of people know that before he settled on the genre defining sci fi coming of age film E.T., Steven Spielberg's original concept was actually a horror movie called Night Skies, of which a cute alien befriending a young human was only one subplot. Almost thirty years later, J.J. Abrams took this idea and ran with it in Super 8, thinking he knew better than Spielberg even as he was trying to ape his style and cement himself as his heir apparent for a new generation. The result was a predictable and somewhat spectacular failure. In many ways, the new film Earth To Echo feels like the movie that Super 8 should have been, which isn't to say its anywhere near as good as E.T., though it may just be the best we're gonna get in an age so bereft of whimsy.

Earth To Echo is a found footage movie, which usually should be enough of a reason to skip it, except that right away it demonstrates a deliberate tack away from all the negative things we typically associate with the well worn faux-guerrilla format. For one thing, the special effects are of sufficient quality to suggest the shaky cam wasn't just a cost shaving measure, and right from the beginning, we get a solid and only slightly preposterous explanation for why everyone keeps making sure the camera is rolling, and just who edited all of this footage together in the first place. It doesn't reconcile all the logical flaws inherent to the gimmick, but at least it tries to justify itself more than most of them bother to do, and for someone who consistently rails against lazy found footage trash, the effort is much appreciated.

The story follows a group of kids who receive a series of mysterious instructions through their cell phones leading them to a diminutive alien robot they name Echo, who in typical E.T. fashion needs their help to get home. Its actually sort of a cross between E.T. and one of its better imitators, the 1985 film Explorers, sending the group on an adventure to build a mysterious device while dodging sinister government agents along the way. One nice twist is that Echo, clearly a child himself or at least childlike, has the ability to manipulate machines, combining commonplace technology into new forms and completely disassembling matter and controlling it technopathically. One scene shamelessly spoiled in the trailer has him tearing apart an entire truck and piecing it back together a few seconds later, representing only a few seconds that were more effective than the entire aforementioned Abrams film.

I bring up Super 8 because, as a fan of this somewhat esoteric subgenre of family-oriented science fiction, I find it especially disappointing to see this much better execution of a similar premise come and go with so little fanfare, shuffled between multiple studios, never quite finding an audience. In my review for Oz, The Great And Powerful, I lamented the loss of innocence and cinematic majesty that has been brought on by too much reliance on CGI, but Earth To Echo seems dead set on proving that magic and wonder can come out of a computer just as easily as Jim Henson's Creature Shop. It doesn't quite succeed, but it comes about as close as I think any movie is capable of getting in this day and age. Found footage is supposed to be more immersive, but all too often it only serves to highlight our separation from what's happening onscreen, and I can't help but wonder how much better this movie could have been if it had been filmed more traditionally, in a way that allowed for its world to be more warm and inviting.

Earth To Echo's biggest problem just so happens to be the one thing that makes it novel and interesting. Its stuck going in two different, diametrically opposed directions, tonally evoking the past but narratively dependant on modern technology and the shallow expectations of today's shaky cam loving younger generation. Its not quite old school, but has just enough of the right feel to let you forgive some of its flashier, cheesier elements, even as they undermine what should have been the heart of the thing. But it does have heart, which is so often lacking in today's family movies outside of the best of Disney that I still say its worth the struggle to dig it out under a mountain of cringe-worthy attempts to appeal to low attention span kids glued to their I-Pads. It may not be the kids movie I want it to be, but then I'm almost 30, so the fact that I'm as invested in that prospect as I am is starting to get pretty creepy anyway.
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