Why isn’t that enough? I don’t necessarily want to be the film’s champion, but I am always surprised when winsome movies meet stingy critics.
Truth is, the films nearest and dearest to our hearts aren’t always the best ones. They are the ones we see when we are young, impressionable, and a bit more ready to give our hearts away. First kisses rarely lead to marriage, but they are special nevertheless…a hint of deeper, fuller experiences that will follow. My friends and I can still quote Ferris Bueller not because he is a better, suaver version of characters played by Cary Grant or Clark Gable but because he was our version. The Karate Kid still makes me mist up every time Daniel goes into the crane position, not because “wax on, wax off” is inherently better than “put coat on” (though it is) but because I saw it at a time in my life where I could identify with the characters on screen and the seemingly insurmountable problems we share for which a few hours in a darkened theater was a blessed escape.
The best thing about Earth to Echo is that I think the young people watching the movie today could identify with characters. They are not precocious movie kids nor angst ridden miniature adults in teen bodies. They are still young enough to ride their bikes but old enough to know that once the proposed highway makes them move they will never recapture their friendship. They are old enough to know how to lie to preoccupied parents but still young enough to believe that good things happen if you make the right decisions And, most importantly, they are young enough to not be jaded, to believe that there is such a thing as the “right” decision. To know it, they don’t have to construct or consult complex philosophical arguments–they just have to follow what their heart says is right.
If it’s not clear yet, the formula elements that many of my colleagues use to dismiss the film are what made me particularly appreciate it. One man’s knock-off is another man’s mythopoesis, I guess. You know when the film won me over? Early on when the three friends discover that that electronic interference on their phones coincided with local topography. When pondering what to do with that information one of them says, simply, “Maps are made to be followed.” This is the logic of the adventure story, and it is the same in every story. Why is that a bad thing? It is what allows Peter in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to know that the robin is trustworthy because it is…well, a robin. In every story he’s ever encountered, the robin is always good. It is the sameness of these stories that allows us, even while our formal expository skills are not yet educated and refined, to cry out from deep to deep. Before there is formal analysis there is something more crude but perhaps just as reliable–there is recognition.
But enough poetic waxing–what about the film? Well, the kids follow the map and they find, as kids always do in such stories, something wonderful. After their discovery they are given a task and led in that task by the powerful yet momentarily vulnerable entity they are trying to help. The biggest threat turns out to be adults who have grown up and have come to look at anything new as a threat. Each of the adolescents gets a little bit of a back story; the adventure doesn’t solve or change the things that haunt or vex them but it does give them new hope, confidence, and success, the building blocks for the better lives they hope to build.
The main reason I docked Earth to Echo some points is that I really, really disliked the film’s reliance on (I presume to be) hand-held shaky cameras. I imagine this was done to give the film a vérité look since the kids themselves are supposedly recording their own adventure. Thematically, the shaky cam is certainly defensible, but as the film progresses it feels more and more like a gimmick or a formal challenge rather than an artistic contribution to the overall effect. I also thought a late scene in which one of the kids drives a car breaks with the spirit of the genre.
On the flip side, though, it’s nice to see a summer movie that’s actually rated PG rather than R or PG-13. Will this mean some teens will be too cool to go see it on a Friday night date? Maybe. But there are more than enough movies about people supposedly their age acting like adults for them to see if they don’t want to risk crying in front of their peers. Earth to Echo does a nice job of reminding us that there is a huge rating space between G and PG-13 (increasingly, the R without the nudity and fewer cuss words).
I didn’t expect much from Earth to Echo, but I had fun. I found the viewing pleasurable both intrinsically and for the ways that it reminded me, nostalgically, of past pleasures. I can’t guarantee that thirty years from now, when I’m retired, that some new critic will be lamenting that a 2044 release (maybe a reboot of Short Circuit or a remake of *batteries not included) is just a ripoff of a pleasant memory from his childhood, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Not one bit.