They Tell Their Story, by Scott Nye
When I was in fourth grade, a little movie called Men in Black came out, capturing my brother’s and my imagination. Like most kids, it wasn’t enough that the characters and world exist on the big screen; we needed to be a part of that world as well. So we played as the Men in Black, even going so far as to make our own short film (that also had heavy doses of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure). We formed our own neighborhood alien watch group in the process, speculating about neighborhood abnormalities that may signal something strange and extraterrestrial. Earth to Echo captures this feeling so perfectly, retrofitting a half-dozen obvious influences into a film that is purely about and for kids. It is the movie that these characters would imagine themselves to be in; self-produced wish fulfillment cut with sad reminders that they, at so young an age, are not yet their own masters.
Director Dave Green dispenses quickly and expertly with the exposition – Alex, Munch, and Tuck are three close friends whose parents are moving them to separate states, following a government order to level their neighborhood to make room for a freeway. Shortly before they are to leave, they start receiving very strange signals on their cell phones, one of which resembles a map. Convinced the map leads to something that will stop the freeway project from proceeding, Tuck convinces the other two to set out into the desert with him, on their last night together before being forced to move, to see what they can find. Fancying himself something of a YouTube sensation, Tuck brings an array of cameras in tow, and the footage he shoots is how we see their adventure.
I’ve only seen a handful of entries in the genre, but after I saw Europa Report, I surmised that the found footage film would only ever do so much for me, that as much as I enjoyed that film (or Chronicle, or Cloverfield), the limitation of its format removed too much in the way of directorial personality to ever totally appeal to me. Green understands that people – specifically, kids – are shooting and assembling the footage, that there’s an actual character with a perspective and interests all their own. He employs an array of camera types, each with their own aesthetic, as well as incorporating footage from Skype conversations, Google hangouts and maps, and instant messaging services. Unlike the appalling Super 8, which has a not dissimilar premise (spoilers, I guess – the kids find an alien), this is a world that kids of today might actually recognize and identify with.
Furthermore, the format (“found footage” isn’t quite the right phrase – in the world of the film, Tuck edited this all together himself; no one had to to find it) specifically aligns the film to the kids’ point-of-view. The alien, the government, and everything else about the plot gets backgrounded in favor of developing their relationships to one another and their thoughts on the ensuing adventure. Whereas so many similar movies strain to find reasons for people to continue filming themselves, Tuck’s enthusiasm for their adventure and his own cinematic creations ensure there’s no reason to question it. This is the last night they are to spend with one another, after all. It’s worth capturing.
On the storytelling front, Green and screenwriter Henry Gayden beautifully use their fast-moving plot to reveal and develop character. When the alien sends them to an arcade to look for spare parts, Alex gets caught and the others bolt. Alex, a foster kid, gets particularly upset when people leave him behind. This isn’t grand opera, but it’s the kind of simple mechanics that make an ordinary MacGuffin chase matter. They let the kids have their escapism (complete with a snotty government agent as the villain), bringing to real life the sort of adventure kids might concoct in their backyard, but they never let them forget that they are, ultimately, still kids in someone’s backyard. Their parents worry, their modes of transportation are limited, and pretty much any adult can act as an authority figure. Getting into slight spoiler territory, when their adventure concludes, they’re reminded of forces at work over their lives even bigger than some extraterrestrial adventure – time marches on, and everything changes. Earth to Echo is the rare kids’ film that not only isn’t an outright embarrassment, but is actually something that kids might want to see, that reflects something of their lives, environment, and relationships. Better still, it’s one I would encourage them (and any adult who appreciates children’s films) to see, full of imagination and wonder, but a deep understanding of the nature of childhood. It’s only beautiful because it doesn’t last.