Earth to Echo, rated PG

Starring Teo Halm, Brian ‘Astro’Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt

Austin Family critical rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Austin Family Family-Friendly rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In a summer bereft of major releases that aren’t sequels or reboots, I don’t take any great pleasure in finding fault with a good-natured, sweet family film like Earth to Echo. The movie, directed by Dave Green, bears many similarities to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. –The Extra Terrestrial (1982) in its basic premise, but it’s hindered significantly by its gimmicky “found footage” framing device, popularized by movies like Cloverfield (2008) and Chronicle (2012). The result is about as cinematic as you might expect from a movie that seemingly takes place from the point-of-view of Google Maps.

Alex, Tuck and Munch are three adolescent friends preparing to move away from their neighborhood, where a new highway is coming through and sending local families packing. When their cell phones start acting strange, the three boys are led to the highway construction site, where they find Echo, a wounded alien in need of repair and shelter. Together with their school friend Emma, the kids take Echo around town, as the alien gathers spare parts to build itself back up and make its way home. As they venture through the night, the kids are followed by a group of shady construction workers, who are desperate to contain Echo and stop it from leaving Earth.

“Why are you filming me?” Emma asks early on in the movie, and the same question could be asked of most scenes in the movie. Earth to Echo has many of the same problems that most “found footage” movies have—there’s simply no reason why anything other than the major events of the movie would be filmed. The device stretches credibility and ultimately proves frustrating, mainly because Earth to Echo wants to be a real movie when it’s convenient, even bringing in a sweeping cinematic score every now and then.

Supposedly, the kids form an E.T.-like connection with Echo, but the film spends so much time and effort sustaining (and stretching) the found footage technique that it overlooks many of the basic storytelling tactics that make movies like E.T. or J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) so effective. Echo, as designed, seems like a pretty cool alien, and I’d love to see the movie where the kids actually get to know the alien. Unfortunately, the connection formed between the kids and Echo is never dramatized effectively. And it’s a shame, because the young actors are good.

Earth to Echo has moments that work—there’s a great set piece with Echo’s mother ship near the end, and the camaraderie among the kids calls to mind spirited films like The Goonies (1985). But the movie is so committed to its viral video gimmick that it never manages to tap into that spirit and just be, you know, a movie.

Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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