If "found footage" movies had been around at the height of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment days would E.T. look something like Earth to Echo? Spielberg hasn't proven to be the genre's biggest fan but director Dave Green sees it as an opportunity for his nostalgia-infused adventure stand out from the pack. While J.J. Abrams mined similar ground in the edgier and bigger budgeted Super 8, Green's Earth to Echo has enough heart to overcome raw lead performances and technical miscues.
It's probably not even fair to say the film is inspired by the likes of The Goonies, E.T., and countless other '80s fantasy adventures; whole chunks of plot are basically ripped and repurposed with only minor tweaks. After a fairly gut-wrenching open by the camera-obsessed Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley) lamenting the move from his Nevada neighborhood and away from best buds Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig), the economical 89-minute feature cuts straight to the chase. In days their town will be bulldozed as part of some shady government project, but before the boys can pack up they are waylaid by an even greater mystery. All of the cell phones in town go wonky, or appear to have "barfed" on the screen, and it's Munch, who is described as "an acquired taste" by his mother, is the one to figure out the clues lead straight to the Nevada desert.
All of the boys have their own personal issues to contend with that complicate their grand excursion. Tuck is probably the most "together" of the three, although his family doesn't seem to pay him a lot of mind; foster kid Alex has serious abandonment problems; and Munch is...well, "an acquired taste". Socially awkward and more than a little shy, Munch has found a protector in Tuck who pleads via YouTube that Munch's new neighbors give him a chance. The three leads, none of whom have a wide array of acting experience, come off as natural and the story's emphasis on childhood loyalty resonates even if the characters could use a little more development. They get far better treatment than Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt), the lone female of the group thrown in at the last moment and given little to do but be a source of vague romantic tension.
Outfitted with an array of cameras, including one hidden in their glasses, the boys do what boys do and concoct a sleepover story that fools their clueless parents. Tracing a signal and a mysterious map, they discover a little metallic alien creature which they nickname "Echo". Echo looks like a Funko version of the metal owl from Clash of the Titans, and he chirps like him, too. Echo's presence has drawn the interest of sketchy construction workers who know more about the alien than they are letting on, and while the kids are chased throughout the night the stakes never quite reach critical mass. The threat level remains low and there's never any doubt whether the kids will succeed in helping Echo "phone home"; this is all designed to be as agreeable for families as possible and to that end the film is a success. What isn't a success is the nauseating shaky cam footage distracting from the solid action, which saves the no-doubt tiny budget for two huge scenes. We don't get to see Echo unleash his extraterrestrial powers often but when he does it's worth the wait and the target audience will be suitably awed.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Spielberg must be feeling mighty good right now, but at least Earth to Echo was smart enough to imitate the very best.