Earth to Echo has the same group of town-saving misfit child heroes as The Goonies, and a lonely suburban setting straight out of Spielberg, but it is a cynical, post-awe movie made for a time when people feel more connected to their personal technology than to each other. The entire story is about constructing a viable vehicle by scavenging and assembling loose parts, and the film adheres to that save-the-planet ethos, recycling pieces from nearly every movie about robots, aliens and plucky youngsters made in the last few decades.
It is more of a filmed marketing strategy than anything else: The Goonies meets E.T. meets Transformers meets Stand by Me meets found footage meets copious product placement meets lots and lots of money meets cocaine and prostitutes. With sights set on E.T., it's missing that crucial piece of technology known as a soul, becoming a clattering contraption forced to settle for Mac and Me.
In a briefly invigorating narrative twist that quickly turns nauseating thanks to first-time director Dave Green's motion sickness-inducing camera eye, Earth to Echo is structured like an amateur movie shot by one of its own juvenile protagonists. The three boys are Tuck, a brash African-American with a Brooklyn accent not shared by any of his family members; Alex, the broodingly pretty foster kid who is there to kick off puberty for the young girls in the target audience; and Munch, the requisite bumbling, cowardly, whiny and neurotic chubby kid.
As the film opens, the kids' affluent Nevada suburb is being demolished, supposedly to make room for a freeway. On their last night together, a suspicious mass cell-phone malfunction guides the boys into the desert where they discover a piece of dirt-encrusted metallic debris. Although at first thought worthless, the debris turns out to contain a crash-landed alien sought by the sort of shadowy government agents who enjoy explaining their nefarious plans to children for no reason whatsoever.
The alien can only communicate through beeps, sonic echoes and Google Maps, but the children quickly become attached anyway, dubbing him Echo and attempting to assist in the retrieval and reconstruction of his spaceship. This heroic plan involves repeated breaking and entering, vehicular theft, destroying a biker bar (their sleepy planned community supports a surprisingly healthy leather scene) and busting up several other independent small businesses, because this is a heartwarming family adventure.
When he is finally revealed after being teased throughout the first act, Echo shows more potential as a Happy Meal toy than as a fantasy figurehead, but you can hardly expect more from a hero who comes with his own charging station. Echo has a metallic structure, an owl-like face, the awkward movements of a baby bird and only speaks in ear-splitting blasts of modem static — it's as though the irritating stop-motion owl from the original Clash of the Titans got his own origin story.
You never feel a strong connection between Echo and the kids, so when the inevitable "I'll be right here" moment arrives, it comes off as hollow and forced. These crocodile tears may be the products of a chaotic and dispiriting drama, yet they are strangely right for a film where even the protagonists are too emotionally detached to put away their cell phones.