If the children of today haven’t seen “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” they won’t notice how much “Earth to Echo” echoes the Steven Spielberg classic from 1982.
“E.T.” features Henry Thomas’ lonely boy character, Elliott. “Earth to Echo” features three boys, Tuck, Alex and Munch. Exiled from larger peer groups, the guys form a trio of friends, bonded by their outsider status.
In “E.T.,” Elliott discovers a diminutive alien in the woods. Extraterrestrial shipmates left the creature behind. So ugly he’s cute, he’s lost, harmless and homesick.
A similar scenario sets up the boys-centered sci-fi adventure in “Earth to Echo.” The new film’s stranded alien is perhaps a combination of organic material and technology. Much cuter than E.T., he’s a streamlined little guy with big eyes. He must have been designed to be a cuddly toy for small children. A sanitized version of E.T., the boys name him Echo.
“Earth to Echo” opens by introducing its soon-to-be boy heroes: motor-mouthed videographer Tuck; nerdy tech-head Munch; and a foster boy with a chip on his shoulder, Alex. To their credit, the young actors in these principal roles — Teo Halm as Alex, Reese Hartwig as Munch and Brian “Astro” Bradley as the annoyingly effusive Tuck — persuasively play the trio as boys being boys.
Young children are the target audience for the feverishly childish “Earth to Echo.” The boys’ search and rescue mission is a simple sequence of boys on bicycles, boys marveling at the weird stuff that’s appearing on their cellphones and boys with their new alien friend fleeing from bullying adults. The latter are essentially the same government types who pursued E.T.
Cellphones, social media and Tuck’s almost continuously operating, handheld camera provide major differences between “Earth to Echo” and “E.T.” Despite the 21st-century technology the guys have at their command, their bicycles, those simple, old-fashioned machines that generations of kids had before them, play a huge role in their night of adventure.
Because Tuck’s hyperactive camera moves constantly, and because the action and images it captures are badly framed, moviegoers subject to motion sickness may want to avoid “Earth to Echo.” Likewise moviegoers who prefer inventive stories and substantial characters. The movie’s hand-held camera imagery, its self-documentation concept and characters who cling to their cellphones are contemporary film clichés.
The movie’s lack of invention includes its “Transformers”-style action sequences and plot and characters that parallel 2011’s much better sci-fi adventure featuring kids, “Super 8.”
The story and the cast in the latter film — retroactively set in 1979, written and directed by J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek Into Darkness”) and co-produced by Steven Spielberg — exceed the dumbed-down “Earth to Echo” by light-years.
“Earth to Echo’s” cloying attempt to establish the boys’ loyalty to one another early on is weak, but kernels of a better movie, in the vein of “Stand by Me,” exist in their friendship. But a story without aliens, special effects, chases and adults behaving badly, a film that’s merely about friends whose neighborhood is about to be destroyed by highway construction, isn’t a project that major movie studios are likely to believe has a shot at being a summer hit.