Updating ’80s suburban science-fiction fantasy as found-footage storytelling for the smartphone generation, “Earth to Echo” feels like what it is — an attempt to pour old-school Spielbergian wine into newer bottles with shaky hands and a shakier camera; the process transfers more sediment than sentiment.
Still, parents looking for mostly harmless entertainment for their young teens and tweens will find it to be a brief, brisk diversion that gives them and their kids a chance to be in air conditioning and entertaining darkness for 82 minutes.
Debut director Dave Green, working from Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay‘s script, quickly introduces us to three verging-on-teenhood residents of a Nevada suburb slated for destruction to make way for a new freeway exchange: Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley), the film-crazy ringleader who’s always recording his world, resolute foster kid Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Rees Hartwig), the nerdy, nervy comic relief. As the three prepare to go their separate ways, their phones start behaving oddly — before showing the threesome a map to a location 20 miles away.
In the spirit of an adventure on their last night together, the three convince their folks they’re having a sleepover, before hopping on BMX bikes and riding into the Nevada night in pursuit of the map’s goal. They wind up finding a piece of junk that turns out to be the home, habitat, and ship of a tiny, kitten-sized robotic owl-looking creature whom they dub “Echo” for his/her/its ability to recreate sounds. Echo then points them to the next stop in his journey of repair and rescue.
Shot and constructed as the camcorded/smartphoned/YouTube-able chronicle of the evening’s events, “Earth to Echo” may have frantic, camera-shaking cinematography, but it’s a device that wears thin swiftly. It’s an affectation that’s guaranteed to distract more than it illuminates. The kid performers are fine, including Ella Linnea Wahlestedt as the popular but plucky Emma, who joins the threesome’s race through the night.
The special effects here are accomplished: Echo is a lively character, even if he looks like the marriage of an Apple mouse and Bubo from “Clash of the Titans.” The extensive, expensive fx wouldn’t be much without the characters and actors around them, so it should be noted that even with the burden of pretending to shoot the film, Bradley, Halm, and Hartwig not only hit their marks but also make their mark in the film’s more emotive scenes. (Echo just wants to go home; Alex, as a foster kid, immediately bonds with that desire, in a nice bit of character-is-destiny even kids will understand.)
The score, conducted and orchestrated by Joseph Trapanese (“Tron: Legacy,” “The Raid 2”) is also a highlight, even if it does sound remarkably like the stylings of Explosions in the Sky (“Friday Night Lights,” “Prince Avalanche”). Editors Crispin Struthers and Carsten Kurpanek also do solid work, hampered as they are by the found-footage style and conceit of the film; if “Earth to Echo” didn’t have the shot-on-a-phone hook, it probably would have been easier to enjoy, albeit harder to get made.
Without the quietly epic emotion of “E.T.” or the wacky pop-culture silliness of “Explorers,” however — two films clearly in the stew of influences here — “Earth to Echo” winds up being a quieter, lesser repetition of other films that have gone before, a pop-culture echo in and of itself. Yet your kids won’t be keeping track of the many 30-to-40-year-old films that are being re-mixed here; they’ll probably just enjoy the easy interplay of our preteen foursome and their space-robot pal.
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Attractively made, good-hearted, and more than a little redundant even as it’s trying a little too hard, “Earth to Echo” nonetheless will hit the sweet spot for parents looking for innocent PG-rated entertainment for their kids in a summer full of PG-13 spectacle and mayhem.