It's very difficult to make a Steven Spielberg movie—which is why, in general, only Steven Spielberg attempts it. A few guys can make it work. J.J. Abrams did it a few years back with Super 8. But it's usually a bad idea.
And so it is with EARTH TO ECHO, a barely adequate family film that aims to jazz up an old story template with found-footage camera work and some digital flourishes. The filmmakers clearly nod to old-school fare such as E.T. and The Goonies, and with affection. But the movie lacks Spielberg's masterful heart-tugging technique.
We begin with an introduction by 13-year-old budding filmmaker Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley), who obsessively documents suburban life with his two best friends via an array of digital devices: smartphones, mounted webcams, even a pair of secret-agent eyeglasses.
Tuck's best friends are brooding foster kid Alex (Teo Halm) and nervous science geek Munch (Reese Hartwig). The three pals are preparing for their last big night together, since their neighborhood is about to be demolished by a suspiciously sudden construction project.
Before their families go their separate ways, the kids hatch a scheme to spend One Last Night together. The plan? To investigate some mysterious transmissions that show up on their cell phone screens as a map to a remote location outside of town.
Here, the boys discover a doll-size alien life-form they dub Echo, who looks like a cross between a clockwork owl and EVE from WALL-E. Echo needs to reassemble his ship to return home, but he can only communicate in beeps—one for yes, two for no. This results in a funny 20-questions scene: "Do you come from space?" Beep. "Do you eat humans?" Beep beep. Whew!
A very familiar adventure follows, with the kids dodging their parents and outrunning federal agents on their bikes. The twist is that everything is filmed via Tuck's variously mounted digital cameras. The effect is dizzying, and not in a good way. But the special effects are stitched in seamlessly and several show-stopping F/X scenes display Echo's spectacular telekinetic powers.
The children, though likeable enough, are never developed past their one-note establishing scenes, and Echo doesn't get a personality at all. We never come to care about the kids and their extraterrestrial ward, which undercuts the suspense. There's no heart, and very little of the sense of childlike wonder required in this type of family movie.
But don't worry, the intrusive musical score and narration will tell you what to feel, and when. Kids are unlikely to register any of this, of course. I feel obligated to report that my grade-school kids loved the movie. Poor little devils—they don't know what they're missing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The good, the bad and the dreck"