The most derivative movie of the summer, Earth To Echo, is also the most visually unpredictable, chock-full of degraded digital textures that seem ready to boil off the screen, picture-boxed within Mac desktops and overlaid with extraterrestrial interface trees.
The plot is secondhand Spielbergiana, a copy of a copy. Three generic suburban boys—Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig)—follow a mysterious smartphone signal into the Nevada desert, where they discover a cutesy, clicky alien, which resembles a robotic screech owl. It needs help repairing itself, so they set off into the night on their bikes to scrounge up parts, all the while dodging government agents disguised as construction workers. Eventually, they are joined by a token girl, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt).
This is framed through an eclectic found-footage gimmick, which mixes cameras and computers with the alien’s own point of view. Google maps and street view are used to represent the characters traveling from one place to another. Windows with pertinent information hover in the margins of the screen. At one point, during a webcam conversation with Munch and Alex, Tuck alt-tabs into iTunes to put on the Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves soundtrack.
The kids’ cameras strike extreme, unusual angles: floor-level static shots, compositions framed around the underside of Tuck’s chin, near-fisheye wide shots. At one point, Tuck mounts a GoPro to the rear pegs of his BMX bike. The resulting composition puts his foot in the left third of the frame and his friend’s backs in the middle; blades of grass brush past the lens, and a star-dotted night sky fills up the top of the screen, toppling sideways when Tuck comes to a stop and lets the bike drop out from under him. Earlier shots, with the GoPro mounted to the handlebars, turn the hills and back alleys of the kids’ suburban development into a roller coaster bounded by driveways and garbage cans.
Later on, the movie periodically adopts the perspective of the alien, dubbed “Echo” for its tendency to mimic sounds. Images melt away, leaving trickling blotches; skeletal frameworks, circled by hieroglyphs, assemble across the screen. It’s one of those cases where a hokey Hollywood movie inadvertently replicates the audiovisual pleasures of experimental film—in this case, a contemporary strain of video art that uses digital generation loss to turn mundane subjects into deformed canvasses. The often unconvincing effects (including a bit with a semi that’s great in concept, but slapdash in execution) contribute to Earth To Echo’s deteriorating texture.
In many ways, the aesthetic is of a piece with the narrative, which is composed of pieces from Explorers, Super 8, and Batteries Not Included (the kids’ homes are even under threat of demolition), corrupted by generations of copying, until they seem less like elements of a story than meaningless beats. The movie’s continually reiterated theme of lasting friendship is unlikely to affect even the most impressionable young viewers; grown-ups, however, might get a kick out of seeing something so weird-looking stretched across the multiplex screen.