It's no "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." (What is?) But on its own modest terms, the alien adventure "Earth to Echo" is a lively and likable knockoff that should divert, if not exactly enthrall, tweens and young teens.
Logic hounds beware, however. The script by Henry Gayden, from a story by Gayden and producer Andrew Panay, has holes big enough to fly, well, a spaceship through. Still, first-time feature director Dave Green keeps things moving so swiftly — at times too swiftly — it helps patch over some of the film's narrative chasms as well as the fuzziness of its found-footage conceit.
In a Nevada suburb, three 13-year-old best friends — the gung-ho Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley), anxious, brainy Munch (Reese Hartwig) and soulful foster kid Alex (Teo Halm) — are preparing to say goodbye as their neighborhood is being leveled for a highway construction project.
But the night before all are moving elsewhere with their families, the guys start receiving weird, disruptive images on their cellphones. Deciphering these missives as maps, the trio steals away, riding BMX bikes across 20 miles of dark desert highway to find the source of the scrambled communiqués. Time and space — and the boys' cycling ability — are , to say the least, ridiculously fudged.
Before you can say "phone home," the pals discover a friendly alien being, a kind of little robotic owl they dub Echo. Turns out Echo has crash-landed and needs to find its missing parts in order to rejoin its mother ship and return to its planet. We know this because Echo beeps once for "yes," twice for "no," and the boys, as well as class hottie Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt), who later joins the guys on their quest to help reassemble Echo, are good at asking questions.
But the film sputters as forced obstacles and far-fetched obstructions, including those involving a shadowy doctor of sorts (Jason Gray-Stanford), kick in and we lose sight of the alien. The story regains its footing toward the end, with a few nice, if predictable and derivative, payoffs. Though there aren't a ton of memorable visual effects in this carefully budgeted effort, there is a late-breaking eye-popper involving an airborne truck that should elicit a clap or two.
Bradley, Hartwig and Halm make engaging leads, bringing spirit and commitment to their archetypal roles. Unfortunately, the digitally animated Echo has nowhere near the charm, warmth or expressiveness of its Spielbergian ancestor. As a result, when Halm's Alex — the piece's nominal Elliott — has his big emotional moment with his otherworldly new friend, it plays more like an audition for an "E.T." reboot than for the movie he's actually in.
'Earth to Echo'
MPAA rating: PG for action and peril, mild language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun