"I've never spent a day without seeing my friends," a preteen named Tuck confesses while videoing said friends at the outset of Earth to Echo. "Now it's all over."
That's because the three slightly awkward, utterly inseparable middle school amigos Tuck, Munch and Alex stand on the brink of the unthinkable: being separated forever. The culprit? To put it in legalese, eminent domain. In plain English? The local government is about to build a freeway through their cherished Nevada subdivision. And their families are all moving to different places.
Now the dreadful, hated moment of their fellowship's sundering is just one day away.
Except that …
… something weird started happening to all their phones just two days before. "Barf," they call it. An amorphous, ameba-like image on their screens. An image, discovers Munch (who's got mad scientist tendencies), that perfectly matches the mapped outline of a wilderness area right outside of town.
They have exactly one night to investigate.
Munch takes some convincing. After all, it'll be a 17-mile ride into the desert. On their bikes. At night. Without anyone knowing where they are. But eventually he comes around as the boys all agree to tell their parents they're staying overnight with one of the others.
And just like that, they're off, with their phones pulsating ever more frequently as they get closer to where the Barf takes them.
Soon they're riding back to town with a fragile, owl-like alien they name Echo hidden in Munch's backpack. Amazingly, it understands them and manages to communicate via "yes" and "no" beeps that it needs their help to get back home—help that requires finding all manner of parts to activate the creature's spaceship.
Those parts seem to have taken up residence in unlikely places: a biker bar, an arcade, at a pawn shop or even in the bedroom of a fellow classmate named Emma. She, of course, joins the three boys on their adventure when she finds them rummaging through her closet.
But getting Echo the things his ship needs isn't the gang's only concern. For some reason, workers from the freeway construction crew keep turning up. And, increasingly, they don't seem nearly as interested in building a new road as they do in tracking down Alex, Munch, Tuck, Emma and ... Echo.
Earth to Echo is about what happens when four tweens find an alien that needs their help. But there's more here than just sci-fi silliness. At its core, this fanciful flick is really about friendship, about the ties that bind three boys (and a girl!) together. Tuck, Alex and Munch are devoted to one another as only slightly geeky, outsider preteens trying to survive middle school can be. They're heartbroken at the thought of being separated, and they long to experience one last adventure together to cement the memory of their friendship and their childhood.
Once these guys (along with Emma, who quickly becomes an indispensable member of the group) figure out that Echo needs to phone home, er, I mean, get home, they're determined to make that happen. Alex, who's been shuffled around in foster care, says, "He's lost and alone, in the middle of nowhere, on his own. Like us." Later he adds, "We're not leaving him. I've been left. I know how it feels. We're all he's got." At one point when it looks as though launching Echo's ship might destroy the entire neighborhood, Tuck, quite maturely, says, "This isn't just about us anymore. It's about a whole community still asleep in their beds." Alex's short reply ("I trust him") implies that he doesn't believe Echo will do anything that will hurt anybody. (It's trust that's rewarded in a remarkable way.)
As the "construction crew" closes in on the gang, Munch is "captured" (or taken into their custody, if you prefer) to be questioned about what the kids know. The other three sneak into the supposed construction company's headquarters to free him and Echo. (But because it's your contextual viewpoint that determines whether that's positive or negative, I'll repeat this paragraph in our "Negative Elements" section.)
Throughout the increasingly dramatic story—and if you're thinking about the scientists' pursuit of E.T. you're in the right neighborhood—the kids exhibit a deep, earnest and childlike dedication to helping Echo get back to his home planet so many light-years away.
Tuck lies and says that he kissed Emma. And one of the guys calls them "kissing buddies." Another asks, "So what was it like kissing her?" When Emma finds out what Tuck's said, she teases, taunts and playfully humiliates him about the made-up story.
We do see two high schoolers kissing at a keg party. A joke suggests one of the guys has a crush on the mother of another friend.
Tuck and Alex have a brief scuffle, but quickly settle their differences. It's implied that Munch is (mildly) manhandled by the men on the "construction crew." Each time the gang gets close to locating one of the pieces Echo needs, it creates an earthquake-like disturbance paired with a magnetic one, with pieces of metal destructively zipping around (though no one is injured).
Crude or Profane Language
Fifteen or more misuses of God's name (mainly "oh my god"). One "h---," two unfinished "what the …?" phrases. Munch says something is "scary as balls." We hear multiple uses of "crap" and "stupid."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Tuck's older brother, Marcus, smirkingly invites little bro to come to a raging party that's being thrown at Marcus' girlfriend's house while here parents are away. Tuck has no interest at all in that … until they need Marcus' car. With that motivation propelling them, they end up at the party where lots of high schoolers are drinking out of red plastic cups. Marcus is already unconscious, apparently passed out from the booze, in the bathtub.
Triggering a different sort of inappropriateness, the crew walks into a rough and tumble biker bar in search of one of Echo's missing pieces.
Other Negative Elements
As the "construction crew" closes in on the gang, Munch is "captured" (or taken into their custody, if you prefer) to be questioned about what the kids know. The other three sneak into the supposed construction company's headquarters to free him and Echo. (While positive on one level, this action can easily be seen as irresponsible or outright criminal, depending on your perspective.)
The boys all agree to lie to their parents about "sleeping over," then rig up all of their phones to ring to Munch's mobile because he's apparently good at impersonating the voices of the other boys' parents. They have a sense that what they're doing is dangerous, and there's some commentary about the fact that if anything really bad happens, no adults actually know where they are. It doesn't stop them from going forward, though.
Compounding this problem is the parents' collective distracted cluelessness. None of them are paying much attention to their sons. In fact, Tuck lies to his parents, who aren't listening to him at all, then blurts, "I lied. We're going to ride our bikes into the desert alone without supervision." His parents just nod and smile and tell him they'll see him tomorrow, clearly not having heard him while unconsciously reinforcing the idea that somehow what the boys are planning to do is OK.
During their adventure, the boys trespass repeatedly. They enter a farmer's barn, sneak into Emma's bedroom and slip into a closed arcade. A startled security guard there tells them that they're guilty of felony trespassing and destruction of property, but Echo uses his magnetic powers to keep the guard at bay while the gang gets away. Likewise, madcap destructive mayhem breaks out in a pawnshop, damaging quite a bit of stuff.
Tuck takes the keys from his passed-out brother and steals his car—never mind that he's 12 and has never driven. His friends are reading him "how to drive" instructions from the Internet, and a serious accident is only avoided when Echo literally deconstructs the pieces of a semi headed right at them, then reassembles them on the other side.
We hear about Munch's need to pee, along with vomit-oriented jargon like "barf" and "blow chunks."
In the last decade or so, action movies have almost completely migrated into PG-13 territory. They've typically earned that rating due to intense stylized violence and the implication (if not depiction) of scores of innocents being killed (see virtually every comic book adaptation recently) and/or the maddening infusion of profanity and sensuality (the entire Transformers franchise comes to mind). Action fare aimed at—and appropriate for—younger audiences has all but disappeared.
Enter Earth to Echo. At the prerelease screening I attended, producer Andrew Panay was on hand to tell us about what motivated him to make this movie. "I grew up watching The Goonies, Stand by Me," he said. "Don't you think it's weird that your generation hasn't had a Goonies to talk to you? … I thought it was about time you kids had the same experience us adults have had."
In many ways, Earth to Echo succeeds in that ambition. It's a rollicking throwback that majors in childlike innocence, friendship and wonder paired with a cool, out-of-this-world adventure. From that perspective, it's just about the most family-friendly sci-fi flick to come out of Hollywood in a long time, and I can't help but applaud Panay's attempt to excise all manner of inappropriate content that's crept into the genre over the last 20 years or so.
That said, there are still issues to be navigated here. And at the top of the list is the fact that we're asked to suspend any kind of judgment about these tweens' decision to charge out into the desert at night alone. Obviously, in the context of a movie like this, we're not supposed to overthink things as we casually accept that reckless premise in the same way we might have done with E.T. in our own childhoods. But these kids nevertheless lie to their parents and set off on a trek that any sane parent in the real world would absolutely object to. Ditto their illegal entry into someone's house, someone's barn and an arcade. And how 'bout that biker bar?
It's not impossible that those kinds of cinematic suggestions—even though they're intended to be seen as part of a fantastical, fictional story—could still influence impressionable young viewers who don't yet have a strong grip on reality, much less the concept of consequences.
Another moment that causes me to furrow my fatherly brow a bit is the depiction of a high school party full of underage kids drinking themselves into a stupor. Sure, the cops eventually show up to bust them all, but that won't do much to convince younger minds that this isn't just what high schoolers do. Again, it's not the kind of behavior that engaged and conscientious parents would want their tween or teens imitating.
So it seems that sometimes the things that we think go without saying should be said. If the engaging, old-fashioned adventure of an alien and the kids who help it seems like good fun for your family, take the time afterwards to talk through the issues of blatant deception, dangerous activities, criminal capers and underage drinking. And if your kids think all that sounds like a tiresome echo of everything you've already said time and time again, then all the better.