Any movie about kids and aliens inevitably will draw comparisons to “E.T.,” but “Earth to Echo” also includes the friendship adventure of “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” combined with the sci-fi thrill of “Super 8” and “Chronicle.” Yes, it’s plainly derivative, but Dave Green’s debut feature is heartfelt and fun, particularly for children craving live-action films beyond big-budget superhero reboots and animated sequels — all in nearly half the time it takes to watch the latest “Transformers” installment.
Made for a tech-savvy generation of YouTube subscribers and Skype users, “Earth to Echo” unspools as shaky footage shot by digital diarist Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley). He’s eager to show the world what he and his two best friends, Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig), discovered during their final 24 hours as neighbors in a Nevada subdivision that’s scheduled for demolition.
The boys’ smartphones begin “barfing up” weird shapes that eventually map out a piece of desert just miles away. Armed with Tuck’s Handycam, Munch’s backpack of essentials and their thirst for excitement, the boys ride away on a bicycle mystery tour reminiscent of “E.T.” but compressed into an “American Graffiti”-esque night of best-friend exploits.
In the desert, they swipe a metal capsule that houses a small, frightened metallic alien with little more than huge, glowing blue eyes. The injured creature’s ability to mimic sounds with adorable electronic squeaks leads the boys to name their extraterrestrial find “Echo.” From there, the boys set off on an all-night adventure across Nevada to search for Echo’s missing parts and spaceship. It’s “phone home,” but with iPhones.
Hartwig’s Munch, the sweet and honest introvert, enjoys the funniest lines as the sole rule-follower. “She’s already had enough guys lying to her,” he laments early on about telling his mom a sleepover cover story. If Munch is the trio’s conscience, Alex, the handsome but sensitive orphan, is its heart. As a foster-care veteran, he understands what it’s like to be lost and lonely, and Halm plays him with a subtle maturity, even when the dialogue turns overly sentimental.
The refreshingly brisk film’s imperfections don’t arise so much from its cinematic deja vu — which is obvious but well meaning — but from its original elements: the unrealistic plot developments (no kid learns to drive without incident in two minutes!), underwhelming revelations and uneven characterization. The “villains” aren’t convincingly threatening or dangerous; Echo’s definitely cute, but his back story is too vague to be memorable; and the addition of popular classmate Emma to the group is an unnecessary stab at light romance delivered by a “pretty but fierce” stereotype. Emma would’ve been more interesting had she not been “the hot mannequin girl” all of the boys fancied.
Despite its flaws and recycled parts, “Earth to Echo” is engaging enough to impress preteen audiences and nostalgic enough to please their parents.
Chen is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ½
(89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language.