Earth to Hollywood: Social Media Is Not the Enemy

Smartphone-enabled tech has been getting a bad rap at the movies, but this summer's Earth to Echo features heroes who use its powers for good.
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Relativity Media
The movies have a long history of technophobia, and social media has become their latest villain. A new breed of coming-of-age dramas is borrowing from horror movies to make iChat users look creepy and teens look stupid. Cautionary tales like Adoration, Trust, and Disconnect take full advantage of the horror film cliché of the naïve, sexually proactive, and ultimately doomed teenager to imagine Privacy Settings-less games of online cat and mouse. When these scripts can call upon social media, they don’t even have to find a way to get rid of all authority figures: Being tech neophytes, the adults are already helpless to intervene before the denouement’s inevitable stalking sequence.

Even when films do show a competent young techies—think The Social Network or Hard Candy—they’re often portrayed as unlikeable outcasts. Of course, that's a false depiction in an age when tech fluency is the norm, not a marker of social alienation. And lots of evidence suggests that “digital natives” are doing just fine. Movies that portray social media in a positive light, like Jon Favreau's recent indie Chef did, are surprisingly rare. You might think Hollywood would want to try to understand the selfie generation, rather than terrorize them. After all, these millennials are purportedly going to save the movie industry.

Happily, Earth to Echo, a small film released by Relativity Media, finally gives social media and the youths who use it the decent roles they deserve. Disney reportedly dropped the film because it didn’t fit in with their current, blockbuster-focused business strategy. But Earth to Echo is exactly the kind of film that should be setting the template for future children’s tentpoles, since it portrays technology as a tool that can be used creatively and constructively. 

The film looks backward to take a step forward. The entire plot (featuring a wounded alien, a hostile military, and a sympathetic young boy) uses E.T. as a model; the establishing conflict is totally The Goonies; the characters are, type-for-type, mirrors of Stand By Me; and there’s even a brief chase sequence with a snapping dog that looks suspiciously like The Sandlot. The promise of a nostalgia trip should help ease older members of the audience into the film’s fresher material.

Director Dave Green performs a simple inversion: Rather than use the live-action genre to tell a fantastical story that will plaster the Spielberg Face all over his young actors, an actual 13-year-old carries the camera. In the world the movie sets up, we’re not seeing the alien creature reflected in a young boy’s eyes—we’re seeing it through his eyes.

That fact gives Earth to Echo the creative freedom to imagine how a digital native would capably handle timeless trials of childhood. For example, moving: The premise has the main characters on the cusp of relocating from their bucolic neighborhood in Nevada. On their last night together, their phones malfunction and display a mysterious map, which they decide to follow, hoping for one final adventure. The phones are a plot device, yes. They’re also the film’s first example of how digital natives can overcome helplessness with technology.

Over the course of the movie, the kids handle, with remarkable responsibility, a series of parents’-worst-nightmare situations. They navigate a seedy bar and a drugged-out teen house party, and even learn to drive a car by way of GPS and Google how-to searches. We’re accustomed to found footage turning into a horror show; here, the style just makes the adventuring look like a problem-solving game. The protagonists’ savvy and care with technology makes hysteria over smartphone culture look a bit ridiculous: The kids, truly, are all right.

In fact, they're better than all right: They communicate way better than the adults. In grand live-action children’s film tradition, the parents are completely oblivious to the perils facing their progeny. That doesn’t stop them from futile attempts to locate the kids using that old-fashioned technology, the telephone: One running gag has Munch (Reese Hartwig) pretending to be his mother (he’s rerouted her phone line through his cell) to reassure his friend’s parents that the pre-teens are indeed playing mind-numbing video games at his place. She buys the alibi, the implication being that the adults are so entrenched in their negative mindsets towards technology that she missed her chance to save the day.

Earth to Echo’s protagonists are no more suave than the endearing nerds we’re accustomed to rooting for at teen movies. That said, unlike their horror genre peers, they don’t substitute social media for face-to-face connection. The characters spend nearly half of the film’s running time plugged into social media, much like the people who will go to see it: A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that today’s teens spend 7.5 hours a day online, resulting in a “hybrid life.” Many concluded that this level of engagement would negatively affect social skills. Earth to Echo makes a persuasive case for the opposite. Social media equips our heroes to cope with sweeping transformations in ways older generations could not, both in technological capability and mindset. When moving day arrives, the camera-carrying narrator delivers this bit of wisdom: “Distance is a state of mind.” Maybe it’s the vintage Instagram-like filter overlaying the ending—a montage of video chats, Youtube videos, and live-action—but viewers should leave the theater with the warm and fuzzy feeling that this hybrid future will work out just fine.

The real irresponsibility, the movie argues, is willful blindness to the upsides of technology and its capacity to connect us. After all, despite what as Hollywood has repeatedly suggested this summer, social media isn’t a HAL-like monster or an evil conspiracy contrived by the tech industry. The truth is simpler and more heartening: Technology is a tool that people every day try to use for good. Earth to Echo gets that. With a box-office haul so far of $24 million (versus a $13 million budget) it has performed modestly, to so-so reviews. But the ways in which it’s remarkable should become more evident in the years to come, perhaps when the audience members with whom it’s really allied are old enough to buy their own tickets.

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Katie Kilkenny writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment channel.

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