"Possessed by a creative compulsion he can’t understand, everyman hero Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) alienates his wife and comes close to mental breakdown before discovering the source of the visions in his head. Spielberg has said that if he made the film today he wouldn’t allow Roy to abandon his loved ones at the end – and yet this final, painfully human act of selfishness is what gives the film its aching power."

Tom Huddleston writes about Close Encounters for Time Out London’s Top 100 Sci-Fi films feature, in which Spielberg’s classic ranks fourth.

Ever since the Orca set off from the shore of Amity to go a shark-huntin’, Steven Spielberg has been a cultural touchstone who’s seen his inimitable style repeatedly rehashed. The Deep, Orca and Joe Dante’s Spielberg-approved Piranha were the first in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, and as the director’s filmography grew, the likes of Romancing the Stone, Mac and Me and Independence Day followed suit. These films aren’t necessarily bad (indeed, some are really rather good), but they only capture Spielberg’s essence at a surface-level, aping the dusty adventure of Indiana Jones or gargantuan spectacle of Jurassic Park. The emotional and thematic content is so often lost.

Things have begun to change in the last few years as the kids who grew up with Spielberg, rather than Spielberg’s contemporaries, have got their foot in the film industry door. JJ Abrams was the first in 2011, bringing the sweetly nostalgic Super 8 to our screens, with the executive producer backing of Spielberg himself. Gareth Edwards has continued the trend this year with his take on Godzilla, which in its teasing approach to revealing the eponymous monster owes a debt to Jaws and Jurassic Park, and now first-time director Dave Green does the same with Earth to Echo, an E.T. esque story of fading friendships and lost aliens.

The film follows Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian Bradley), Munch (Reese Hartwig) and Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) during their last night in their hometown. It’s about to be demolished to make way for a new bypass, and when the kids’ phones start displaying a strange map, they decide to follow it to enjoy one last great adventure together. The map leads to an alien who they dub Echo. He’s lost and desperate to return to his home planet. To do that though, he and his newfound friends need to track down enough pieces to rebuild a key to start his spaceship, which is lost somewhere in town.

The links to E.T. are pretty overt then and with its midnight blue colour scheme and poster featuring a finger reaching down to its eponymous alien, the film’s marketing consciously courts them. This is no bad thing; indeed complaints would be hypocritical. Spielberg himself has endorsed riffs on his own style in Amblin productions such as The Goonies, Explorers, and *batteries not included (all of which Earth to Echo riffs on too), and he’s hardly averse to showing the influences of his predecessors in his own films, notably the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney (a particularly significant influence on E.T.) and John Ford.

What matters here isn’t what’s gone before Earth to Echo, but Earth to Echo itself, and Green and writer Henry Gayden have created something that will speak very clearly to its target audience. The film is presented as found footage, with the kids using iPhones and YouTube to document their adventure. It’s a device that can seem trite nowadays, but Green and Gayden use it to powerfully comment on the way digital technology is becoming a friend and source of power for Millennials being blamed, overlooked and alienated by their elders. In one particularly affecting scene, Tuck’s family ignore him as he embarks on his dangerous mission to find Echo. He pauses as he leaves the house, the camera capturing his reaction. It’s not so much a scene in a film, but a journal entry exposing silent agony.

Such intimacy and melancholy continue throughout the film in the other characters. Alex is a foster child whose fear of being abandoned leads to a fight with Tuck, Emma argues with her parents over a function she doesn’t want to attend, and Munch explains with regret how he doesn’t think he’ll be able to make any new friends when he moves town. These moments are captured on the peripheries of the film as the camera creeps around corners, cuts in and out, and records all the unrehearsed ‘deleted scenes’ of real life. Green understands what Spielberg does - that such beats are best teased rather than directly shown - and it gives the film a power that it would have lacked were it filmed with a more formal technique.

Earth to Echo has already been released in America, where it’s done impressive business (making $26m from a $13m budget). This is heartening for two reasons. Firstly, Green, Gayden and the cast are promising new talents who all have bright futures ahead of them. Secondly, Earth to Echo is sweet and sincere entertainment that delights in appealing to its core audience. It’s therefore a rarity in a cynical film landscape that prefers to target those remembering their childhood than those experiencing it now.

It adds a certain extra melancholy to the film. With Spielberg now known as much for his dramas as his earlier blockbusters, who’s left to give this generation their dose of wonder? Where are the dreamers, the optimists, the kids who hear the word ‘superhero’ and don’t automatically prefix it with ‘tormented’? With Earth to Echo, Green has created something that will ignite the imaginations of those dreamers and leads to new adventures the way its predecessor did with their parents in 1982.

VERDICT
It may not be particularly original, but Earth to Echo is a  sweet, charming family film that wears its heart (as well as its influences) on its sleeve.

★ ★ ★ ★

Earth to Echo is released in the UK on Friday 25th July. To find out more about the film, check out its website and social channels…

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