Earth to Echo emits faint signals

Even after 32 years, the shadow of E.T. looms large over Earth to Echo, a familyfriendly, found-footage sci-fi trifle that also “echoes” Joe Dante’s disappointing Explorers (1985), Disney’s Witch Mountain films, *batteries not included (1987), Roland Emmerich’s StarGate (1994), and the recent Chronicle (2012).

Such derivation would be acceptable if Earth to Echo were a better film. The film tries to get by on cuteness, but its attempts to be likable and appealing are forced. In its own way, it’s as thin as Transformers: Age of Extinction, but (thankfully) it’s shorter.

The setting is a small New Mexico suburb that’s due for demolition to make way for a new super-highway (or is it?), a decision that doesn’t sit well with three tight-knit buddies, played by Reese C. Hartwig and newcomers Tao Halm and Brian “Astro” Bradley. When the neighborhood’s cellphones go haywire, they deduce that the strange pattern on the screens is a map and off they go on the proverbial “adventure of a lifetime,” dutifully filming it along the way. (Earth to Echo fudges its found-footage motif by also incorporating a musical score.)

What they discover is a metallic object that’s clearly not of this world, which they dub “Echo” and which requires their assistance to reassemble. (Echo, it seems, just wants to “go home.”) Joined by female classmate Ella Wahlestedt (her feature debut, too), thereby providing the group with appropriate diversity, the kids learn such valuable skills as fibbing, breaking and entering, and petty larceny as they try to help their new friend.

Too much is too convenient and contrived. Adult characters and authority figures come and go, not at will, but at first-time screenwriter Henry Gayden’s whim. Even by the flimsiest standards, credibility is severely strained throughout – not so much in the science-fiction angle but in the overall story. Director Dave Green (his feature debut) handles the special effects competently enough, but can’t breathe much life into the proceedings. Of the cast, Halm and Wahlestedt fare best with comfortable performances. Hartwig’s comic-relief character sometimes becomes tiresome, and Bradley’s narration is repetitious and mostly unnecessary. The parents and siblings are standard-issue dumb stereotypes, and the principal adult character is a grumpy scientist (Jason Gray-Stanford) whom the kids constantly elude and antagonize.

The little robot is cute, and those who remain to watch the closing credits will be “treated” (as it were) to a hint that Echo’s adventure could still continue anew, depending of course on the box-office results of this film. No sequel is necessary, although there would certainly be room for improvement.