"Earth to Echo" is an engagingly unassuming "E.T." knockoff, a kids movie that serves up a similar alien-with-kids story in a "Blair Witch"/ "Paranormal" shaky-cam package.
Disney produced it, but then sold it to Relativity. Cast with cute, likable kids, given a few decent effects and having that found-footage "reality," it doesn't have the financial or emotional heft of the mythic "phone home" tale. But it works well enough.
Three tweenage pals are about to be split apart forever. Their Nevada subdivision is being demolished for some sort of bypass. It's not fair, but what do you do?
Nervous tech nerd Munch (Reese Hartwig), boisterous camera buff Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley) and shy, sad-faced Alex (Teo Halm) make the most of their last days together. And when their electronics start going kerflooey and their cellphones start showing this blotch shape, they have purpose. What's going on, and why is this construction site so … "Men in Black"-like?
The blotch shape is a map, and that sets the lads off on their bikes for a nighttime scavenger hunt, with Tuck capturing it all on his GoPro Hero cam, narrating our story as he does. He likes to upload conspiracy videos to the Web. They're onto one, and how.
First, they find a canister, and then they figure out who's in it. And then they find other five places on the map that tend to deepen the mystery.
First-time director Dave Green finds plenty of novelty and fun in what is, let's face it, a pretty derivative script by Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay. The creature is like the shiny, digital owl from "Clash of the Titans." Adorable.
But it's the kids and their reaction to this extraordinary encounter that sell this. Communicating with the … thing … is paramount. And what's their first question?
"Do you eat humans?"
I like the childlike problem-solving that goes on and the PG "breaking curfew" edge to the story, which takes the boys all over their corner of the world, into all sorts of places where they could get into trouble — a bar, an arcade, a pawn shop. Oh, and they have to venture into the house of their prettiest classmate, the one none of them has the guts to approach — "mannequin girl."
When she (Ella Wahlestedt) turns out to have a name — Emma — and to be friendly, gutsy and just as curious as the rest of them, there's another little lift that the movie needs to at least get into the same league as "E.T."
The no-name cast spreads from the kids to the adults, but the parents find a laugh here and there. The one grown-up most of us will recognize, veteran character actress Mary Pat Gleason, shows up as a biker. Which, once you see her and remember the million other movies she's been in, is worth a chuckle. Wahlestedt and Bradley stand out among the child actors.
The plot elements swiped from "E.T." are many but are given tiny twists that rule out plagiarism charges. "Earth to Echo" has lots of blown opportunities, but developing any single stop on the kids' nightlong adventure would have added minutes to its lean, 91-minute running time.
And the spooky, nighttime bike ride (handlebar camera) and assorted whiplash-quick action beats serve it well.
Generations removed from Elliot and E.T., there's no sense kvetching about a new, pale imitation of it for today's kids. Adults? You'll be underwhelmed. But remember, we've seen worse fake "E.T.'s," especially in the years right after Spielberg's Reese's Pieces masterpiece came out. And your kids? They will be tickled.
"Earth to Echo" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some action and peril, and mild language)
Running time: 1:31
Opens: WednesdayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun