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Earth to Echo
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Mac & Meh"
1 stars

Once upon a time--early 1982, to be exact--a film of Italian origins arrived on our shores by the name of "Great White" (though it would also come to be known as "The Last Shark" for you completists). As you can probably guess, it was a knockoff of Steven Spielberg's enormously popular 1975 classic "Jaws," a film that had inspired no small amount of shoddy ripoffs in the ensuing years including, it should be noted, the fairly abysmal official sequel "Jaws 2." However, while other films of this sort would at least try to make theirs at least a little different, if only by changing the aquatic danger in question into another creature (as was the case of "Tentacles," "Orca the Killer Whale" and "Alligator") or at least to another species of shark, "Great White" followed "Jaws" almost beat for beat, right down to Vic Morrow (in what would be one of his last completed roles) doing his best Robert Shaw impression. In fact, this one pushed the boundaries of copycatting to such a degree (even the ads took several pages from its antecedent's famous promotional campaign) that when Spielberg (who admired another "Jaws" aper, "Piranha," so much that he hired its director, Joe Dante, to work on his productions of "Twilight Zone: The Movie" and "Gremlins") got wind of it, he got Universal Studios to sue the producers of "Great White" and before too long, they got an injunction permanently pulling the film from release. (It has subsequently turned up on the grey market but to be honest, the background story is infinitely more interesting than the movie itself.)

I bring all this up not to demonstrate my working knowledge of vaguely obscure Italian rubber fish movies but because I found myself thinking about the whole "Great White" saga a lot while watching "Earth to Echo," an allegedly new film that does for another Spielberg classic, "E.T.," what "Great White" did for "Jaws"--very little beyond testing the boundaries of the laws surrounding plagiarism. In fact, this shoddy stab at family entertainment is such a complete steal from "E.T." that I am fairly certain that if Spielberg were to train his legal guns upon it, it would get yanked from theaters quicker than you could say "Jack Robinson." My guess is that there are two key reasons as to why he hasn't done this. The first is that while "E.T." is clearly the film's primary source of "inspiration," it borrows (to put it politely) blatantly from so many other sources--including 'The Goonies," "Super 8" and "Explorers," just to name a few--that any legal proceeding against it would almost have to be of the class-action variety. The second is that to successfully pursue such a case, Spielberg might actually have to sit through "Earth to Echo," which is so bad that it hardly seems worth doing for any potential financial recompense. Not only is this film no "E.T.," it is actually maybe three cans of Coca-Cola short of a "Mac & Me."

Set in and around a suburban housing development in Nevada that has just been bought up in order to be destroyed, supposedly so that a freeway can go through the area, "Earth to Echo" opens as three young friends--brooding foster kid Alex (Teo Haim), self-described "acquired taste" and Jm. J. Bullock clone Munch (Reese Hartwig) and camera-happy Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley)--are contemplating what looks to be their last days together when a series of mysterious electronic charges causes most of the cell phones in the area to depict indecipherable gibberish. Luckily, Munch manages to figure out that whatever it was that messed up the phones came from somewhere in the desert and on what is supposed to be their last night together, the three decide to have one last adventure by going out to discover for themselves what is really going on.

In a development that will surprise very few of you, the source turns out to be an honest-to-goodness alien creature, a tiny little thing that looks like a cross between WALL*E, that robot owl from "Clash of the Titans" and, oddly enough, the disguise worn by the killer in "My Bloody Valentine" and which speaks only in a series of beeps. It turns out that Echo, as the alien is eventually dubbed, is stranded and needs help finding parts that will allow him to fix his ship and return home. Over the course of a very long night (long enough to make one suspect that Echo can also fold time a la "Dune"), the kids follow various maps that he creates to take him from one place to the next in order to gather the various parts and this inspires all sorts of neato adventures involving sneaking into places and crashing parties and being kidnapped by government agents who are also in hot pursuit of Echo. Oh yeah, along the way, they pick up a fourth in the form of Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a spunky classmate whose primary function is to expand the potential audience demographic by adding a girl to the mix.

As you can see from just the above description, the similarities between "Earth to Echo" and "E.T." are pretty much undeniable but the lack of originality on display is not the sole reason that I hated--and I mean hated--the film as much as I did. No, my problem is that having pilfered such time-tested material, director Dave Green and screenwriter Henry Gayden proceed to do absolutely nothing with it. The screenplay has no humor, excitement or enchantment--three ingredients that would seem to be necessary to a film like this--and the whole map-following aspect is so tedious that there are times when it feels as if it is trying to simultaneously imitate the infamous "E.T." Atari game as well. Likewise, Green is unable to invest the material with any sense of magic or wonder--these kids have made contact with an actual alien from another world but once it is determined that the creature has no particular desire to eat them, they demonstrate so little interest or curiosity that Echo might as well be nothing more than a toy they will quickly tire of before long. While "E.T." had two brilliant kid performers in Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, the kids here run the gamut from the bland to the deeply irritating and it is impossible to generate much sympathy for their plight or interest in their adventures. Meanwhile, Echo is kept off the screen for so much of the time that he often feels like an afterthought, though I suppose the tolerance level for a metal owl that talks like a "Simon" game is probably perilously low in the best of circumstances.

However, the most annoying aspect in a film filled with annoying aspects is the boneheaded decision to present it as one of those found-footage deals along the lines of "The Blair Witch Project," "Cloverfield" and other, lesser endeavors. In fact, I believe that this is the first family-oriented film to utilize this gimmick--pretty much the dictionary definition of a dubious achievement if you ask me. For one thing, it is unnecessary because unlike the aforementioned titles, which at used that approach as a key storytelling device and which would have been far less effective had they been told in a more conventional manner, there is absolutely no reason for the story to be told in this manner other than to use the shaky camerawork as a camouflage for dodgy special effects. For another, it is just plain ugly to look at and for young children who are used to seeing films shot in a conventional manner, this one may prove to be a confusing and occasionally stomach-churning experiences. Finally, the film doesn't even maintain the gimmick in a consistent manner throughout--there are portions where we are given point-of-view shots that make no sense and even a couple of moments in which it appears to give up on the gimmick entirely. If only they had come to that conclusion much earlier in the production process--the result probably would have still been terrible but at least it might have been watchable.

From its review in "Variety," I learn that "Earth to Echo" was made back in 2012 and was actually produced under hush-hush circumstances by Disney, where it was known at the time as "Untitled Wolf Adventure." It seems that they had no idea of what to do with it (or didn't want to run the risk of offending Spielberg) and last year, they sold it off to Relativity Media, the house that "Movie 43" built, and it is they who are distributing it, complete with an ad campaign that shamelessly borrows from the famous "E.T." logo. Strangely enough, I am convinced that a documentary about the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing would probably make for a more engrossing and entertaining film than this junk. True, parents may be relieved that it is not quite the all-out assault of the senses that "Transformers 4" is but that is small comfort for any stuck watching this pathetic pilfering of an unassailable (and, need I add, easily acquirable) classic. Hell, this movie is so bad that if I had to choose between the two, I would rather endure "The Goonies" again than sit through "Earth to Echo" for a second (well, technically second) time.

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originally posted: 07/02/14 10:31:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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  02-Jul-2014 (PG)
  DVD: 21-Oct-2014


  DVD: 21-Oct-2014

Directed by
  Dave Green

Written by
  Henry Gayden

  Teo Halm
  Reese C. Hartwig
  Ella Wahlestedt
  Jason Gray-Stanford
  Cassius Willis

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