Earth to Echo is a film that knows its audience. The problem is that its audience, increasingly, needs a special reason to get off the Internet and come to the theater.
Much like VidCon, the half-industry, half-fandom convention celebrating YouTube culture where it got a special advance screening Friday night, Earth to Echo argues that the reason is pure and simple navel-gazing: You should watch Earth to Echo to celebrate yourself.
This is the same impulse that drew 18,000 attendees to VidCon: to celebrate the DIY group culture and community that has spawned a full-fledged generation of vloggers, entertainers, and online activists who express their voices through their cameras and their passions through their “likes.” As hundreds of teens and a few parents lined up Friday night for the screening, it was clear that the risks this quirky little film was taking in appealing directly to an audience of tweens and teenagers might well pay off.
Earth to Echo has a premise that’s superficially very similar to J.J. Abrams’ sleeper hit Super 8: kids with cameras, strange occurrences in the desert, mysterious government conspiracies involving an alien with whom one of the kids soon forms a close connection. Both films wear their Spielberg homages on their sleeves, and both films weave their coming-of-age narratives into their depiction of the emerging filmmaker.
But where Super 8 concerns the individual growth of a single would-be independent filmmaker, Earth to Echo takes the fairly unusual tack of grounding itself in a community of friends who each have grown up with the Internet, specifically YouTube, as the backdrop to their somewhat isolated lives.
The boy who would be king of YouTube is Tuck, played with a subtle, quiet cynicism by Astro. At the VidCon premiere, when asked his favorite thing about his character, Astro replied, “My favorite thing is that Tuck is black.” The film doesn’t comment on the unfortunate novelty of a black character being the one behind the camera, but then it doesn’t have to: Earth to Echo treads on familiar turf with its eclectic mix of misfits and social outcasts. Alex (Teo Halm) is a foster kid who is leaving shortly to go to a new neighborhood and a new family. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is an awkward kid with OCD, a chubby-cheeked everyman who has more than a bit of trouble accepting the whole alien deal. They each gain a measure of control over their lives through their participation in Tuck’s YouTube filmography, alternately filming and being filmed, as casual onscreen as off. When they stumble across a mysterious-looking space canister, they set off, camera in hand, to help its inhabitant, dubbed Echo, make his way back home.
Over the course of one eventful night, the boys journey through various sleepy Nevada towns, guided by the bubbly Echo, who delivers cuteness despite being slightly less charismatic than a Wall-E or an E.T. The goal, which requires going to various iconoclastic places and getting random pieces of hardware so that Echo can repair its spaceship, involves an entertaining amount of public vandalism and casual mayhem.
In this and other criminal acts, the boys are sometimes aided by a winsome Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), who appears in the second act to be Awesome and Do Cool Things, only to be totally sidelined and ignored until it’s time for her to be the default love interest. Far more successful is the complicated nature of Alex and Tuck’s friendship, including the tacit presence of racism and classism in their respective realities. Occasionally this erupts into moments of tension, but the foundations of the friendship are never really in question. After all, we’ve captured it on camera.
But by far the standout of Earth to Echo is Hartwig’s frenetic, nervous Munch. Hartwig transcends his character’s status as Goonies riff and comic relief, imbuing energy and emotion into every line to become the film’s true hero. The moment when Munch rises above his fear and establishes himself as this film’s Book 7 Neville Longbottom drew a resounding cheer from VidCon’s teen audience.
In addition to the Goonies-style nature of the boys’ friendship, Earth to Echo trades on other kinds of familiarity: Halm, with only four film credits to his name, is a minor Vine star with 30,000 followers. Like his character, he comes across as a likable, if taciturn, kid who’d rather film what he feels than talk about it. Throughout the film there’s a sense that the Internet is the fourth of this ring of best friends. At one point they Google “how to drive a car,” because, well, what else is Google for?
Where most films treat modern Internet culture as either something to poke mawkish fun at or hold up in reverence as new tech that will be hopelessly dated five years from now, Earth to Echo offers the Internet as the echo of our own culture. It also, interestingly, takes an almost punk derivative approach to the mingling of new tech and old, clunky, loud tech—from brass gadgets at a pawn shop to thingamabobs from a creaky jukebox. It’s not quite dieselpunk, but let’s call it at least hardwarepunk.
All in all, Earth to Echo will appeal to the nostalgia of older kids who appreciate a good coming-of-age romp, parents looking for movies that eschew most of the usual stereotypes of teens on film, and the average YouTuber and tween who knows what it means to “do it for the Vine.” By the end of the film, the baseline theme of “E.T. phone home” has become even more universal: The Internet is the way we phone home these days, and the aliens, after all, are right here.
Earth to Echo opens nationwide today.
Photos via Call Him Echo