[Screen It]


(2014) (Astro, Teo Halm) (PG)

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Sci-Fi: A trio of boys follow a signal to the desert where they find an extraterrestrial they try to help get back to his home planet.
Alex (TEO HALM), Tuck (ASTRO) and Munch (REESE C. HARTWIG) are three boys who are best friends in their Nevada subdivision. They're still at that awkward stage where they don't know how to behave around girls, which is why Tuck lies to his friends that he's previously kissed Emma (ELLA WAHLESTEDT), a classmate of theirs. Their lives are about to be upended, however, due to a freeway that's planned to run through their neighborhood, resulting in their families moving away and the boys being split up.

The week that's going to happen, all of their phones go crazy and feature odd designs on the screens, something they eventually diagnose as a map of some sort leading out to the desert. On their last night together, they plot to ride out there and find what it is, only to discover a small, foreign object partially buried in the sand.

They soon learn that it contains a small extraterrestrial that they deduce crash-landed there and is trying to get back to its ship. Eventually joined by Emma, they attempt to help the alien -- that they've nicknamed Echo -- do just that, but must contend with a group of adults, led by Dr. Lawrence Masden (JASON GRAY-STANFORD), who have other plans for the visitor and his yet to be found spaceship.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
One of the reasons I came up with the idea for the Take 3 Movie Initiative (https://www.facebook.com/Take3MovieInitiative) was that there simply aren't that many movies anymore -- especially of the live action variety -- that the entire family can see together. Yes, there are various computer-animated offerings every year that fit the bill, but they're usually unbelievably expensive to produce ("Frozen" reportedly cost $150 million) and thus aren't as plentiful as live action films aimed at older teens and adults.

And while you can probably rattle off the titles of scores of such animated films over the past decade, you'd likely be hard-pressed to do the same regarding live action films designed for kids. Thus, when one comes around, it's time for rejoicing, albeit tinged with caution as such films often aren't as carefully constructed -- from an artistic standpoint -- as their animated brethren.

Thankfully, the latest such pic -- "Earth to Echo" -- doesn't suffer that much from that perspective, but it does have two significant issues that drop its merit a few points. Most immediately obvious is the decision by first-time feature length filmmaker Dave Green to fashion and shoot nearly the entire film with a handheld camera.

Although it's technically not a so-called "found footage" flick (like "The Blair Witch Project" or "Cloverfield") as one of the juvenile protagonists is showing us the footage from a year earlier, the visuals are so bouncy that anyone prone to motion sickness had better stock up on Dramamine or something similar before seeing this. And all of that shaky, constantly moving camera footage does nothing for the film from an artistic standpoint (beyond possibly allowing the filmmakers to skimp a bit on some of the special effects by not allowing the viewer to fully focus on them at any particular moment).

Not as troublesome -- at least from a nausea related standpoint -- but still a major issue is that first time feature length screenwriter Henry Gayden has cribbed a great deal of his story from two popular kid-related, live-action flicks from the 1980s. And they'd be none other than "The Goonies" and "E.T." From the former, we have a bunch of friends whose family homes are in danger as they set out following a discovered map that leads them on a journey of adventure. From the latter, we have an extraterrestrial who ends up on Earth, is discovered and hidden by some kids from adults who don't have the alien's best interest at heart, all while the kids try to help E.T., um, Echo, get back to his home planet.

While the pic does capture the essence of kids, their unique friendships at that particular moment in their lives, and the fun of heading off on some grand adventure without the knowledge of adults, the blaringly obvious lack of novelty and lifting of previous material ends up leaving a disappointed impression and questions of why a more original story couldn't have been crafted. It certainly doesn't help that Echo (who looks like some sort of small, mechanical owl) isn't nearly as personable as Spielberg's now 30-year-old creation or that the overall effort doesn't possess the level of charm, magic and suspension of disbelief to make audiences fall for the offering hook, line and sinker.

The story is quite simple. Three friends (Brian "Astro" Bradley, Teo Halm and Reese Hartwig) are lamenting the fact that their very Spielberg-esque suburban Nevada neighborhood is about to be razed in favor of a freeway coming their way. They're a tight pack and this apparent eminent domain surprise is sending them and their families separate ways. In fact, we get to see them on their very last night together, a point in time that coincides with their smart phones acting up and sporting nebulous if arty-looking designs on their screens.

They eventually deduce this is a map and thus set off on their bikes into the desert where they eventually discover the titular character. He doesn't speak, but can understand English and thus gives a one or two beep response to indicate his answers to their "20 questions" interrogation. That finally results in them understanding that he's trying to get to his spaceship, a desire that results in the small holding pod he's in causing otherwise inanimate objects in a number of settings to fly around, out of control, before attaching themselves to said pod, thus getting Echo one step closer to his goal each time.

They end up joined by a classmate (Ella Wahlestedt) who's begun to draw the pubescent longings of some of the boys, all while they must avoid the nebulous but threatening adult (Jason Gray-Stanford, not even given the chance to come close to approaching Peter Coyote in a somewhat similar role in "E.T.") who wants the alien. That scenario (following the map to addable objects while avoiding the adult) is repeated time and again, thus making much of what's present far too repetitive. The kid actors are decent in their roles, but their parts aren't written well enough to make them stand out (as compared to say, those in "Stand By Me").

Throw in the blaring lack of story originality, underused magic and charm, and the barf-inducing shaky-cam, and "Earth to Echo" can't help but come off as an unfortunate missed opportunity. While younger viewers who've never seen the aforementioned cinematic predecessors and grew up watching bouncy, handheld camera shots might enjoy the offering, adults longing for some childhood nostalgia might just have a similar reaction as mine regarding that "they just don't make 'em like they used to." The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 17, 2014 / Posted July 2, 2014

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