Friday 25 July 2014

Scrap metal: "Earth to Echo"

The balance between live-action and animated family features has shifted heavily towards the latter in recent years; so heavily, in fact, that it would be easy to overrate the modestly winning Earth to Echo, a low-cost, digital-era refit of that old matinee trope about kids who stumble across a wounded creature and seek to hide it away from uncomprehending grown-ups. The kids here aren't the moppets of yore, but cellphone-wielding nice guys, compiling a video diary on life at the suburban fringes of the Nevada desert; as their treatment at the hands of school bullies suggests, they're born pushovers, whose families face imminent relocation as part of a highway construction project. 

The need to create lasting memories of their time together is thus pressing - and a close encounter of the third kind will provide plenty for everyone. Director Dave Green displays a lot of love for all things Spielberg in his debut outing, not least through his attentive, suspenseful pacing: a fair bit of character detail and a workable sense of place - of nondescript stripmalls breaking up nondescript homesteads overseen by understandably distracted parents - gets sketched in before the discovery of the eponymous Echo: a glowing robotic owl thing who beeps, squeaks and levitates while our humanoid heroes try to figure out the purpose of his visit to our galaxy.

Green is savvy about integrating Google Earth, YouTube and instant messaging - all the elements Spielberg didn't have to concern himself with around the time of E.T., and which the modern multiplex director is now expected to kowtow towards - though there are stylistic limitations, almost inevitably tied to the tired found-footage format: occasional POV confusion (apparently Echo "sees" the world through his finders' mobile phones), much artlessly wobbly camerawork. (Imagine how much less soaring the climax of E.T. would be if Spielberg had clipped his camera, and not the alien, to the handlebars of Elliot's bike.)

Clearly, it's traditional only up to a point, and some of it just feels underdone, a straight-to-DVD item elevated to the standing of a summer-holiday event in the absence of any bigger or better ideas: you feel it most in the absence of familiar faces, and hear it on the anonymous, ten-songs-for-a-dollar soundtrack. (A brief snatch of Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves score as the boys make plans to go out into the night is about as good as it gets.) The crash site from which Echo is salvaged is visibly a junkyard staffed by men in high-visibility tabards; Echo himself no more than a small, carefully curated amalgamation of pixels, rather than anything you'd especially want to take home as merchandise.

There's something vaguely commendable about the film's downplaying of its own commercial potential - it's not in 3D, and unlike Transformers: Age of Extinction or even The Lego Movie, it finally has nothing to flog but itself - but Earth to Echo finally sells itself most short on a narrative level: you can't help but think the restless barrage of camera perspectives is simply being used to jolt us out of our familiarity with this material (as Cloverfield did) rather than digging a little deeper into this world and its characters (as the similar-looking Chronicle did). By its final act, E.T. was tapping some primal wellspring of emotions; Green can boot and reboot the app as much as he likes, but Google Earth hasn't found a way of mapping those yet.

Earth to Echo opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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