The influence of classic Spielberg movies is all over Earth to Echo. The plot is lifted from E.T., but the movie also borrows heavily from Goonies and other 80s movies about kids hanging out. But stylistically, this movie borrows nothing. In fact, it shows how to conjure the "80s kid movie" vibe without wallowing in nostalgia.
Minor spoilers ahead...
First: the tl;dr part: Earth to Echo is a pretty fun movie. It's a very tight film, clocking in at under 90 minutes and possessing pretty much no wasted scenes or fancy tricks. You can take your kids to this film on a hot day, and you won't be bored or annoyed. You might even be pretty charmed by this film's mixture of goofiness and solid characterization, if you can get past the fact that it's a remake of E.T.
And the trailers pretty much give away the whole story, as well as giving a decent sense of what this movie feels like. A group of friends are bummed that their neighborhood is being torn down to create a freeway, and their families are all moving away, so they'll never see each other again. But then their cellphones start "barfing" with weird symbols — which turn out to be a map leading to a cute alien who (you guessed it) needs help getting home.
The whole thing takes place in basically one night, because these kids' parents are preparing to move the very next day. The notion that it's their last night together as friends lends an extra layer of poignancy to the story from the beginning, because the spectre of loss hangs over everything. (And the "house about to be torn down" thing feels very Goonies.)
This movie is never going to measure up to E.T., and it doesn't even try — Echo, the alien, is nowhere near as fascinating as E.T., for one thing. For another, this movie doesn't spend as much time getting to know the alien, or building weird funny scenarios around the bonkers idea of having an alien best friend, as E.T. does. The kids' families are basically a sketched-in afterthought, and the emotional pain in the film runs a few millimeters deep.
But what this movie does well is convey a real feeling of a group of friends hanging out together, for what they fear is the last time. And the insecurity of these three loser kids (and the suffocated young princess who joins their group after a while) feels very raw and authentic. Plus these 13-year-old kids are winging it in a completely ridiculous way — they drive a car and a van, they sneak inside a seriously divey bar, and they dodge authority figures right and left.
And like I said, this movie doesn't owes much, stylistically, to Spielberg or John Hughes or other 80s directors. The best thing about Earth to Echo is that it shows how you can make a movie that conveys the spirit of an 80s movie, but not prostrate yourself before the altar of 80s movie-making.
A lot of this comes from the decision to make this movie in the cheap and easy found-footage style, which makes it more like Chronicle or a ton of horror movies. But it also goes beyond that — this is a movie in which everything is from the early 21st century, from the CG animation and Minority Report-y graphics to the random jump cuts. The storytelling is driven by the fact that everybody has cellphones, hidden cameras and computers. Also, the movie intercuts bits of Google maps imagery, so you can follow their journey through the Nevada desert.
But also, a lot of the emotional beats in the film come from unexpected close-ups of people's faces and callbacks to earlier shots, in a way that leverages the "found footage" thing for added resonance. Echo, the alien, has some problem with its eyes, and so it uses its power to hijack cellphones to take over a cellphone camera. That means we see what Echo sees, and Echo sometimes randomly shows us old footage of the human characters in close-up, in the middle of feeling an intense emotion.
So this is uniquely a Spielbergian film for the cellphone generation, and it's a nice proof of concept for the idea that you can make a film about young people that's actually relevant to today's young people, instead of people who were young in the Reagan era.
A lot of the performances were apparently improv, and you can tell — these kids are pretty good actors, but they also feel very naturalistic, and not at all glib. (According to this interview, they had a week of rehearsal plus a lot of team-building exercises, like indoor skydiving, before they went out to film. What is indoor skydiving? Not sure, and it sounds terrifying.) These really feel like a group of actual friends hanging out, and some of the little moments are either good improv, or keenly observed storytelling.
At the same time, the lack of depth of characterization is a serious problem. One of the kids, Alex, is set up as being an orphan, who's with a foster family, so the movie hammers home the idea that Alex has abandonment issues. Another kids, Munch, is a slightly chubby nerd, and so every nerd stereotype gets dragged out (and yet, he winds up feeling like a real person by the end.) In general, these characters start out as thumbnail-sketch stereotypes and then grow into a degree of realness through fairly strong performances.
Realistically, this being early July, you just want to know if you can take your kids to an air-conditioned theater and keep them entertained for 90 minutes without feeling like you've descended into hell. And yes, you absolutely can.
Earth to Echo is not a ground-breaking film, by any means — but the fantasy of connecting with an alien via cellphones and other gadgets feels pretty relevant. And it's a neat way of updating the classic 80s escapist storylines for the era of selfies and Vine.