Take some of Rob Reiner’s kids classic Stand by Me, throw in a sprinkling of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and mix it up with some found-footage. The result may not be original, nor up to the same standards as its predecessors, but you do get Dave Green’s Earth to Echo. And it is good enough to charm young audiences.
The conceit, as is the case with many stories aimed at the young adult/teen audience, is that kids are smarter than adults. So the parents in Earth to Echo are not paying attention and some of the other adults — the mysterious men from some U.S. government agency — are rude at best and evil at their worst. So it is up to the kids to do the right thing.
The right thing in Earth to Echo relates to the fate of a suburban housing tract in Nevada that has been taken over and the residents ordered to move, ostensibly to clear the way for a new highway. Three long-time friends get together on their last night before moving. One of the boys is a tech-geek (Reese Hartwig), another is a video hound (Brian Bradley, also known as Astro) and the third is a moody foster kid (Teo Halm) who has abandonment issues.
The dynamic among the three is real, evocative and sometimes emotional because they hit some tough situations during their adventures together. Meanwhile, for some feminine perspective and power, there is a girl (Ella Wahlestedt) who gets involved and proves to be as capable as the boys when the going get rough.
Of course, this being a sci-fi film, there is more going on than a highway project. That is just a ruse. There is an alien spaceship involved and the boys find the actual alien, who has been wounded in a crash. They call him Echo and he looks like a lot like the mechanical owl Bubo in the Clash of the Titans movies. In personality, he recalls E.T. In story motivation, he triggers a frantic, night-long odyssey for the boys and the girl to outwit the adults before it is too late for Echo.
Some people have turned their backs on the movie, including the heads of Walt Disney Pictures. Earth to Echo was developed by Disney for a late 2013 release, but the studio sold it off. Plus some critics are not buying in. Me? I found it beguiling. I liked the core cast of kids and how they explored human issues in the midst of an alien adventure. I even enjoyed Echo, despite director Green’s attempt to cute him up a bit too much.
What I did not enjoy was the excessive use of hand-held cameras to set up the notion that much of what we see was being shot by Astro’s character. Sometimes, the camera was mounted on his bike. The herky-jerky of hand-held can induce a touch of nausea when overused, as it is in this case.
Fortunately, that is not true about the kid actors, about Echo and about their story together.
Earth to Echo opens in theatres nationwide Wednesday.