Boasting the dubious distinction of being the first found-footage adventure made for family audiences, “Earth to Echo” reaches for the stars with its gentle sci-fi shenanigans, but the rote result remains decidedly earthbound. Tyro helmer Dave Green wears his ’80s-era Amblin inspirations on his sleeve in this good-hearted “E.T.”-meets-“Chronicle” hybrid, which never quite finds its own voice. A little picture bravely expected to enter the summer wide-release skirmish a few days after the latest “Transformers” installment, “Echo” looks likely to get steamrolled at the box office by more substantial studio product.
Developed and produced by Disney under a cloud of secrecy as the “Untitled Wolf Adventure” back in summer 2012, the relatively low-budget pic was quietly sold to Relativity last year when the Mouse House reportedly didn’t know what to do with it. Those concerns appear to have been well founded, based on the finished product’s likable but low-wattage cast and disappointingly one-dimensional approach to story and character.
Although the film was directed by Green and written by Henry Gayden, the found-footage conceit positions what we’re watching as the work of budding filmmaker Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley of “The X Factor”), who utilizes multiple cameras (including one hidden in a pair of glasses) to record every minute with his two best buddies: foster kid Alex (Teo Halm) and “acquired taste” Munch (Reese Hartwig). The three teens face their last days together in a suburban Nevada development scheduled to be demolished by a highway expansion project, but they’re distracted from the pending separation by an intriguing techno-mystery. Inexplicably scrambled cell-phone displays (“It looks like your phone barfed on the screen,” cracks Tuck) are the first clue something is amiss, and the shy yet savvy Munch determines that the source of the problem lies somewhere in the desert.
After formulating a plan to keep their parents in the dark, the trio sneak out at night and make their grand discovery. A pint-sized robotic alien has crash-landed in their neighborhood and can’t set off for home until it’s collected all its missing parts. It can, however, communicate through beeps (once for yes, twice for no) and guide the boys on their quest to help. The search leads to a series of less-than-thrilling setpieces, including pitstops at a local bar and an underage house party attended by Tuck’s sneering older brother. Nervous parents shouldn’t worry; that’s about as risque as the squeaky-clean pic gets. For better and for worse, there’s nothing to match the crass comedy of the film’s spiritual cousin “The Goonies,” or the darker developments of something like “Gremlins.”
Ultimately, “Echo” is even less edgy than “E.T.,” though it remains firmly indebted to the Steven Spielberg classic above all other influences. To that end, while motormouthed Tuck initially appears to be the lead, the focus gradually shifts to the more Elliott-like Alex. He’s the one who bonds most strongly with the stranded extraterrestrial, dubbed Echo by the boys (after Tuck’s suggestions of Master Blaster and Space Ninja are rejected), and becomes its most protective caretaker.
One doesn’t need to go too far back to find a superior Spielberg homage: J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was released the summer before “Earth to Echo” commenced production, and even that film’s ardent detractors would have to admit it’s far more engaging and full-bodied than what Green and Gayden can muster here. While the three young leads are appealing and natural, with precious few traces of cloying kid thesping, their roles remain underdeveloped and one-note throughout. That makes any attempts at emotional resonance through the tropes of boyhood friendships or Alex’s lost-boy connection with Echo perfunctory at best.
Even worse is the awkward effort to shoehorn in a female presence in the form of rebellious popular girl Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt). She’s treated purely as window dressing following a dramatic introduction arguing with her traditionalist parents. At one point Tuck even excises an entire romantic-leaning scene featuring Emma because she’s “annoying” — it’s the only time he manipulates the footage to that degree. Adults similarly don’t factor into the mix in any significant way. Jason Gray-Stanford earns the most screen time for a grown-up as a shady construction worker who knows more about Echo’s link to the neighborhood than he lets on. Though he’s theoretically a villain, the stubbornly low stakes prevent the character from ever becoming much of a threat.
That leaves the undeniably adorable Echo — looking like a cross between Wall-E and the robotic owl Bubo from 1981’s “Clash of the Titans” — to emerge as the film’s most dynamic presence in just a handful of scenes. Designed by 19-year-old Ross Tran and brought to life by an assortment of vfx houses, the only explanation for why we don’t see more of the endearing alien’s antics onscreen must be budgetary.
Presumably that’s also the primary reason for d.p. Maxime Alexandre’s occasionally nauseating handheld camerawork, which — in what has become a hallmark of the found-footage genre — often obscures the action better than it captures it. (The easier to disguise what we’re not actually seeing.) There’s one unimpeded and impressively executed money shot when Echo disassembles and reassembles an oncoming semi-trailer truck to avoid a head-on collision. Otherwise, the most winning visual wrinkle is a few glimpses from Echo’s p.o.v., though how Tuck received that footage to include in his movie is not exactly clear. He sure found a dynamite sound team, as Echo’s beeps and whirls and the more standard action-based contributions of the audio department rep the standout in a generally OK tech package.
A post-credits tag suggests the story isn’t over yet, but given Echo’s already protracted journey to the screen, anyone expecting a speedy return could be in for quite a long wait.