Four pre-adolescent boys attended a recent advance screening in Revere. They may as well have been the protagonists of the kids’ sci-fi adventure film they’d just seen, “Earth to Echo,” and likely longed for the same kind of trouble its gang of boys got into.
Given today’s parenting styles, the boys who’d just seen the film are probably more sheltered than their counterparts in “Earth to Echo,” who recall the heroes of such 1980s staples as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Goonies,” and “Stand by Me” — kids who bust free from the watchful suburban gaze of their families, going by foot or BMX bike into the wild, in search of aliens, or buried treasure, or more.
Times have changed. All the more reason for a throwback film like “Earth to Echo,” opening Wednesday, which conjures up the same kid-centric, kid-driven adventure spirit of “E.T.” and its ilk.
But with the exception of J.J. Abrams’s “Super 8,” which dipped its Cup of Nostalgia heavily into the same Spielbergian waters three summers ago, these sorts of films don’t get made anymore.
“The family adventure movies that I grew up on, watching and loving, had kind of gone away in favor of a darker tone,” “Earth to Echo” director Dave Green said in a telephone interview. “Why don’t they make these movies anymore?” (One theory: CGI animation now fills that family-friendly movie slot.) What happened to films with that “tone of fun and mystery and scares and action and heart”? By which he means “E.T.,” “The Goonies,” and “Stand by Me,” films that are “emotionally pretty honest with their kid audience.” Their plots are about “what you go through emotionally when you’re 12 or 13 years old”: the hard knocks school of heartbreak, being the outcast, losing your friends, but also the possibility of escape. “They always looked kids directly in the eye and they never really pandered to make those kids feel like movie kids.”
“Super 8,” which is set in 1979, was “very much built for the nostalgia of people my age,” Green said, and his film is also a conscious homage to that era. In “Earth to Echo,” three preteen pals, Tuck, Munch, and Alex, get one final night together before their families move away. Then they begin receiving strange signals on their cellphones, which lead them on a scavenger hunt-like expedition into the desert. As the boys find a stranded alien, which they name Echo, bits of a bigger puzzle are slowly revealed.
Echoes of ’80s adventure movies can be heard everywhere in “Earth to Echo.” The pirate map from “The Goonies” is replaced by iPhones. Instead of the Oregonian “Goon Docks” neighborhood, which faces foreclosure because of the construction of a country club, the boys’ small Nevada suburb is slated to be razed for a mysterious highway project. The mistrustful government scientists in “Earth to Echo,” wielding flashlights and jingling key rings, are nearly identical to those in “E.T.”, and are perhaps equally up to no good. Soon, just as in “Stand By Me,” the gang becomes acquainted with deepening friendship, and what it means to do the right thing.
Related themes are also found in films such as “American Graffiti” (a group of friends’ last night together), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (government coverup of aliens), “The Outsiders” (tough boys living on their own in a hideout), and “Iron Giant” (boy befriends and protects robot from government forces). These plots also hinge on the interplay between faceless suburbia and adventure. How far from the cul-de-sac and manicured lawn can kids still find the unexpected? Or in the case of “Stand By Me,” a dead body?
Typically, the boy heroes (and they are mostly boys) are still immune from the troubles of adolescence. They haven’t kissed a girl or driven a car (although they often must drive a car at a climactic moment). This innocence allows them to connect to fantasy, and possibility, which makes it safe for them to believe in monsters, space creatures, and pirates. It also makes them mistrustful of grown-ups and their secret plans and intentions. “Something like this comes along that you have no power to stop,” laments Tuck, learning his lesson in how adult authority works. “Because you’re just a kid. Just a kid.”
Elliott, a loner who seems to have no friends of his own, worries the scientists will give E.T. “a lobotomy or do experiments on it or something,” and protects the alien from parents, the military, and government, all of whom see aliens as a threat. The boys in “Earth to Echo” feel a similar connection to their spaceman, who makes R2-D2-like chirps and beeps. Like Elliott, the outcast foster kid Alex makes an emotional bond with Echo. Like Mikey (Sean Astin) in “The Goonies,” Tuck is the pack’s earnest leader; the nervous Munch is a hybrid of geeky Data and goofball Chunk. All feel like strangers on earth, and let down by the adult world. Echo, Alex says, is “lost and alone, on its own, just like us.” Meanwhile, Moms or Dads are too harried holding together their single-parent lives. Think of the many times the mother in “E.T.,” nursing her own heartbreak, is too checked out even to notice the weirdness (or outer space creature) around her. Kids slip through the cracks. They are unsupervised and in control of their own risky secret mission. Sneaking along underground passages and hidden bike paths, by their wits they outsmart grown-ups, who are realistic obstacles, not cartoon villains. Likewise, the kids aren’t superheroes with superpowers. They’re just ordinary kids.
You might say Green, 31, who was born the year after “E.T.” came out, has been preparing his entire life for this nostalgic debut feature. He grew up watching Spielberg classics and has been making short films since he was 10. As a kid, he even kept a binder of thumbnail sketches and storyboards “to reverse engineer” how certain directors had pulled off camera techniques. “Spielberg obviously was a master at blocking,” he said, “and shooting movies from the perspective of a character.”
The twist: Green breathes new life into the now common trope of found-footage films by using media from the digital devices and platforms kids use today. “Earth to Echo” is a collage of YouTube videos, text messages, Skype sessions, footage ostensibly shot from helmet-mounted cameras and webcams, and other DIY techniques. “These kids are the ones who are on the adventure here. They documented it and also assembled the whole thing and put it together.” As in “American Graffiti” and “The Goonies,” the movie is their record of the gang’s last hurrah. The camera, just like Spielberg’s, mimics their viewpoint. In one scene, Green explained, his protagonists are hiding under a trailer. “You just see feet walk by. The adults walk by and we don’t see their faces because we’re shooting from the kids’ point of view.”
The kids in “Earth to Echo” do their best to distance themselves from adult cynicism. Because you never know: An alien or treasure map might bring meaning to their world. To be sure, there is magic in special effects — who can forget the flying bicycles of “E.T.” — but true magic stems from testing the limits of risk and pushing the bonds of friendship. The mix of mundane and miraculous suggests similar adventures could happen to you, too.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.