Back in 2011, director J.J. Abrams paid homage to the Amblin productions of the 1980s with Super 8, a throwback sci-fi thriller that harkened back to the days before trailers spoiled the entire movie. It was an ingenious bit of retro filmmaking, and now, three years later, director Dave Green makes his feature debut with Earth to Echo, an upbeat sci-fi adventure that adds a found-footage twist to a similarly nostalgic approach. Given the ubiquity of video-recording devices among adolescents in the 2010s, it may have seemed inevitable that someone would eventually make a found-footage film that slants toward younger audiences. And though few would deny that Green hits most of his marks here -- especially in terms of casting -- in his bid to reach the widest possible audience, he and first-time feature scribe Henry Gayden make one serious omission that prevents Earth to Echo from truly being out of this world.
Shortly after a massive construction project begins driving out the residents of their serene Nevada neighborhood, best friends Tuck (Astro), Munch (Reese Hartwig), and Alex (Teo Halm) notice that their mobile phones are being flooded with a series of enigmatic, encoded messages. Determined to discover the source of the code as their families pack up and prepare to go their separate ways, the trio venture out into the desert and find a diminutive alien they nickname "Echo," who needs their help to get back to his ship. Although their quest is complicated by a group of sinister construction workers on a mission to reach the ailing extraterrestrial first, Tuck, Munch, and Alex soon receive some unexpected aid from their classmate Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt). With her help, these three friends might just have a shot at getting Echo back to the stars before he's captured and imprisoned by the shadowy figures who are closing in fast.
As the film opens, Munch and Alex speak candidly into Tuck's camera about their friendship, and Tuck laments the fact that they'll soon be separated since the powers that be have decided to put a freeway through their neighborhood. For most grown-ups, it will be readily apparent that we've wandered into Goonies territory at this point, though for younger viewers without such reference points, the framing device of having the film act as Tuck's final document of their youth together reveals that Earth to Echo is as much about the enduring power of friendship as it is an adventure about kids helping an alien to get back home.
Surprisingly elegiac right out of the gate, these early scenes give the movie its affectionate foundation while simultaneously revealing the filmmakers' keen eye for casting. Though archetypical, the young characters are infused with rich personalities that are effectively brought to the surface by the talented young actors who portray them. This is due in no small part to a skillful combination of writing, direction, and acting, but it's also because the young performers are relative newcomers who haven't brought any Disney Channel baggage on their trip to the big screen.
Once the cell phones begin to "barf" and the youngsters decide to set out on one last adventure together, Green and Gayden work comfortably within the framework of their inspirations while doling out enough little twists to make Earth to Echo more a warmhearted homage than a calculated act of plagiarism. Unfortunately, this is where their major misstep becomes impossible to ignore. Though arguably successful in their attempts to give their story a sense of wonder in which anything seems possible, Green and Gayden fail to counterbalance that wonder with a sense of danger that could have raised the stakes of this terminally tepid adventure. Even the Goonies got shot at (not to mention Chunk almost losing his hand in a blender), yet here, having neglected or refused to take a cue from Spielberg's misguided E.T. revisionism (the director notoriously had the menacing agents' guns replaced with walkie-talkies for its 20th anniversary re-release), the filmmakers never really give us a sense that anything worse than a weekend without TV is on the line should this benevolent mission fail. When the worst crimes your villain commits are asking for a cell phone, stealing a backpack, and angrily pounding his fists on the table, it's hard to establish any real sense of urgency. As a result, when Green and Gayden attempt to make Echo seem like it's dying, the inconsistency in their approach just doesn't provide an effective narrative push.
Not that anyone under the age of 12 will likely balk at such an omission; odds are they'll probably exit the theater still floating on that magical final moment when the journey pays off. At the same time, movie-buff parents can only smile in anticipation of the cinematic doors this has opened and the sights these young eyes will soon behold.