In "Earth to Echo," memories of childhood blur with the nostalgia of the 1980s movies that made an impact on director Dave Green's formative years. Reminiscent of J.J. Abrams' 2011 picture, "Super 8
," with a modern, effectively used found-footage bent, the film incorporates plot elements from 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," 1985's "The Goonies" and 1986's "Stand by Me" in an affectionate if derivative medley. A sci-fi adventure with more interest in the truths of being thirteen years old than in its otherworldly storyline, the project's sincerest moments are not surprisingly skewed toward the former coming-of-age material.
With a freeway in the process of being built clear through their suburban Nevada housing development, best friends Tuck Simms (Brian "Astro" Bradley), Alex Nichols (Teo Halm) and Reginald "Munch" Barrett (Reese C. Hartwig) are about to move in opposite directions with their families. With Alex the first to leave the following day, they see their final night together as their last chance to get to the bottom of a reception anomaly that has caused the area's cell phones to malfunction. Heading out to investigate the cell towers in the desert, they stumble upon what they mistake as a piece of a satellite. In actuality, it is a small docile alien being, injured and all alone. As shady government officials close in, the three boysand later go-getter female classmate Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlstedt)agree to help the newly named Echo locate the missing items he needs in order to make it back to his spaceship and go home.
Told in the form of a slickly edited home video shot primarily by Tuck, "Earth to Echo" nimbly avoids recent found-footage fatigue by giving it a fresh, shiny coat of wax. Director Dave Green and screenwriter Henry Gayden generally avoid the most overused trappings of the subgenre and transplant it to the YouTube generation. It's not obnoxious, either (2010's appalling, stylistically similar "The Virginity Hit
" still haunts my mind), and the characters are an agreeable, sympathetic bunch almost reassuring in their down-to-earth personalities. Brian "Astro" Bradley (a former contestant on "The X Factor"), making his major acting debut as narrator/videographer Tuck, is a born natural. As close buddy Alex, whom Tuck knows he'll have a hard time saying good-bye to, Teo Halm becomes the de facto lead of the film for his special bond to Echo (a foster child, he remembers what it feels like to be abandoned). Reese C. Hartwig is effortlessly appealing as Munch, the kind of kid most comfortable when he is either tinkering with technology or around the people he trusts, while Ella Linnea Wahlstedt blends right in as Emma, a pretty girl from school who crosses paths with the trio and wants in on their overnight quest. That all of these young actors are more or less unknowns is a major asset to a movie pretending to emulate reality.
One part owl and another part Gizmo from 1984's "Gremlins," Echo is a cute creation, but lacks the screen time to satisfyingly build his relationships with his new friends. Communicating through beeps (one for "yes," two for "no"), he doesn't actually get a chance to do anything except be carried around. When it comes time for a big climactic farewell, Green tries too overtly to pull at one's heartstrings. Alex's good-byesand the stilted dialogue he must reciteare especially calculated. By contrast, the concluding scenes with the human characters are full of wonder and poignancy, their note-perfect closing moment positioning the foursome as a little older and wiser (indeed, the bulk of filming took place nearly two years ago in the summer of 2012).
"Earth to Echo" isn't without its manipulations and cannot compete with most of the films that inspired its conception, but this is still the sort of pleasing quality entertainment that children and younger teensand all the adults still in touch with the youth inside themselvesshould eat up. Innocent but no less honest observations about not quite hitting puberty yetMunch is forever getting confused for his mom when he answers the phoneare amusing because they are so truthful, while the characters' burgeoning, bumbling interest in the opposite sex signify the start of a specific universal rite of passage. Narrative hiccups, such as an inconsistent timeline that stretches a single night out to much longer than it should and treats their town as a place where businesses are always open and the streets are bustling at what logically has to be four in the morning, are easy to overlook as storytelling devices. What matters is the heart found in "Earth to Echo," having nothing to do with aliens and UFOs and everything to do with friends standing at an adolescent crossroads, the lot of them about to face far more than just a change of location.