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Then came the trailer, and it looked even more like an E.T. ripoff: Kids stumble upon a cute alien, keep it a secret from everyone—including the dastardly "authorities" in uniforms—learn that it's lonely and wants to go home, and then help the poor little critter in that quest.
Now here comes the movie itself. And the presuppositions are confirmed.
Earth to Echo desperately wants to be E.T. for a smartphone audience. It takes the "faux found footage" approach, which I usually enjoy—especially in films like Cloverfield and Chronicle. But hold the phone home: Compared to Steven Spielberg's 1982 masterpiece, Earth to Echo barely registers a blip on the heart monitor.
Blame it on rookie director Dave Green, shooting his first feature; his only previous experience came with short films with titles like Ham Sandwich and Zombie Roadkill.
Blame it on the writers, who have penned a yawner of script that perhaps should have been titled Echoes of E.T. (But Only Very Faint Ones, and Lame Ones at That).
Blame it on the characters; we learn very little about the four kids who are supposed to carry this story. And yet, don't blame it on the young actors; they were fine, but had little to work with. Brian Bradley, the actor/rapper who goes by the stage name Astro, is entertaining as the film's narrator, making the most of his clichéd lines while bringing some semblance of life to the story.
But most of all, blame it on Echo, the name these kids assigned to their alien friend. Echo is more metallic than organic, more robot than plush toy. He (she?) seems more like a cross between Tekno the Robotic Puppy and Bubo, the mechanized owl from Clash of the Titans. Except that Tekno is more adorable and Bubo is more useful. You won't fall head-over-heels for Echo, like we all did for E.T.
It's not that you can't fall for a robot. I've been smitten by Star Wars' R2D2 and C-3PO, The Iron Giant's title character, and, most recently, WALL-E and his heartthrob EVE. But those bots had charm, charisma, personality. Echo has, well, none of the above. And, unlike E.T., he simply isn't cuddly; you never feel like you want to hug Echo, much less feed him Reese's Pieces or dress him up for Halloween.
Earth to Echo had potential. As the film begins, an entire neighborhood is being uprooted to make room for a new freeway. (And wouldn't you that those dastardly "authorities" in uniform just happen to work for the highway department.) Neighbors are packing up their homes and saying long goodbyes. And preteen buddies Tuck (Astro), Alex (Teo Halm), and Munch (Reese Hartwig) are lamenting the inevitable moves that will send them in separate directions, many miles apart.
So they're all hoping for one last Big Adventure before they go their own ways. Lo and behold, the day before that happens, the three boys' cell phones go berserk with otherworldly blips and bleeps and displays that look a lot like maps. So they hop on their bikes, follow their phones, and find Echo, who (which?) looks like a piece of shrapnel, about the size of a dachshund. The alien is encased in some sort of metal, all alone in the desert outside of town. So of course the boys "adopt" him and try to discern his origins, his needs, his intentions. (Echo doesn't speak, but communicates with beeps—once for "yes" and twice for "no." During a game of 20 Questions, the boys ask, "Do you eat humans?" Echo beeps twice. Whew.)
Along the way, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), the middle-school blonde beauty that every boy wishes he had the nerve to talk to, joins the adventure. This is also unfortunate, because it feels like a ripoff of another film that took this premise—geeky boys joining up with a pretty girl on a secret quest—and developed it so much better: J.J. Abrams' Super 8. If only the dialogue, and the character formation, were half as good in Earth to Echo as in Super 8, we might have had a decent summer movie here. Instead, we only get distant echoes of something far better. (Even the ending, which I won't spoil here, is reminiscent of Super 8.)
When it's all over, you'll weep not for Echo, like you did for a certain irresistible alien who captured our hearts in 1982. As the credits roll on Earth for Echo, you'll just shrug your shoulders and say, "Dang. Let's go home and watch E.T."
Matter of fact, that's precisely what I suggest.
Earth to Echo is rated PG for some action and peril, and mild language, though, frankly, I can't recall any language that was offensive . . . unlike E.T., which, also rated PG, includes a few choice phrases, and twice uses the s-word. The "peril" here is barely palpable, certainly less than you'll find on Saturday morning TV or many of today's video games. Earth to Echo is very family-friendly, fine for ages 8 and up.
Mark Moring, a former film and music editor at CT, is a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.