Earth to Echo wastes no time setting up its premise. Three young teens — Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Astro) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) — as awkwardly nerdy as can be, land themselves in the middle of quite an adventure when they begin investigating cell phone disturbances in their soon-to-be redeveloped community in Nevada. They see this as their last hurrah before their families move away.
Tuck, obsessed with documenting every moment of their lives for posting on YouTube, narrates the unfolding tale and he can’t hide his own concerns about an uncertain future, even though, most of the time, he’s able to couch his fears in the anxieties of his peers. Munch, with his mad-scientist vibe (he’s the obvious precursor to the absent-minded professor stereotype, but more loveable and evolved in this early stage than we’re used to seeing later on), wraps himself up in the warm blanket of his neuroses and enjoys the simple and surprising pleasure of having a couple of friends willing to usher him out of his room from time to time.
Alex is the wild card, the foster kid who has hopped from family to family, but he’s found stability with his recent placement — a family willing to keep him despite a newborn addition — and among Tuck and Munch that he’s not willing to relinquish. The boys, each in their own ways, drop astute hints about their relationship to one another, but the comments never threaten to become clichéd lessons or pat wisdom from overly precocious boys. They are good kids, exploring and testing boundaries, and they make even the most unbelievable moments seem plausible.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for the improbable to rise to the fore.
On cue, they set about testing neighborhood disturbances to cell phones, quickly localizing the problem before any of the adults around them have even figured out that there’s an issue. And over the course of one night, they bike for miles and miles, sneaking into construction sites, breaking into homes and learning to drive without mishap. They are living the dream, so why should I be so quick to wake them?
Well, I can’t because Halm, Astro and Hartwig are winningly low-key performers. Each is old enough to be past the cute-kid phase of their careers, so they can project on a more naturalistic style. The only one who seems to be “acting” at all is Astro, likely since his character, Tuck, is the most talkative of the bunch, the one with more of the faked-up bravado who probably tries the hardest to fit in. What you sense from Astro is that first-time feature director Dave Green, whose background is in shorts and television, wanted to steer clear of teen situational comedy histrionics. The laughs here derive from the interactions between these thoroughly relatable and down-to-earth kids and not trumped-up situations or wide-eyed double takes.
It all boils down to the developing exchanges between the kids and a stranded alien visitor they nickname “Echo,” as they help him to reconstitute himself and salvage his ship before mysterious “contractors” can wreak havoc on the cute little mechanical creature.
Earth to Echo subverts our recent expectations a bit without drawing much attention to the fact by identifying the alien life-form as machine-based — a somewhat radical repositioning in light of machines and computers being seen as inherently evil and intent on overthrowing humanity (e.g. The Terminator, The Matrix trilogy). “Echo” is an adorable owlish creation that beeps and flitters about like a sparrow. There’s no way this machine could hurt anyone (although it has the power to break down and reconfigure other machines with ease).
While highly derivative — think ET meets Chronicle with insinuations of Superbad thrown in (although the boys here feel like the younger brothers of that crew) — Earth to Echo retains the innocence of ET and still embraces the ever-present reach of our YouTube and social media age. There are moments when its preposterous elements threaten to derail it, but the kids sell it — and not like corporations marketing their junky products to kids, who then pursue the purse-strings of their parents.
Earth to Echo isn’t some cheap disposable vehicle content to tickle the nostalgic pleasure centers of adults. It is a surprisingly engaging trip for the whole family with classic appeal. (Now in theaters) (PG) Grade: B+
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