“I’ve never understood why people like the outdoors,” says tween tech nerd Munch (Reese Hartwig) as he embarks on a Nevada desert adventure with his two best friends, Alex (Teo Halm) and Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley). They’re all on their bikes, of course, following a signal that’s taken over their phones, one that also leads them to include take-charge school acquaintance Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) in the hunt. The gang is on the cusp of change, as freeway construction plans to disrupt their insular kid existence and force the entire neighborhood to move away. When an outside force (or maybe more than one) threatens to wreck the life you know and make communication impossible, you’ll probably feel uneasy about the outside world, too.
What they find in the desert is a tiny alien. It’s lost. It looks like a small, metallic space-owl. It beeps, vibrates, chirps and buzzes. And it answers “yes” and “no” questions. They name it “Echo” and decide to help it with whatever it needs. But what it needs is, naturally, enormous. And secret. And the kids learn just how deep in over their heads they are as they move from location to location, experiencing Echo’s power to assemble and disassemble anything in its path, pursued by adults every step of the way.
If it all sounds like an early 80s children-befriend-an-alien movie then that’s because you’re old. And correct. Director Dave Green and screenwriters Henry Gayden and Andrew Panay play by the suburban-fantastic E.T. style manual. There is Spielbergian wonder. There is comic bonding and mishap. The film’s pre-adolescent protagonists are gifted with every movie-kid’s special brand of emotional intelligence. The adults they live with are out of touch and the ones who want to stop their quest are misguided and malevolent. Only kids know the truth because their hearts haven’t died. It’s a children’s film theme that children eat up like Cookie Crisp.
But there are a few significant differences. Shot as through the lens of a smartphone, Earth To Echo takes YouTube's selfie-video approach and blows it up. In spite of its title the focus is on the young people themselves. In fact, Echo has no endearing, E.T.-like personality at all and functions more as a conduit for connection between the kids (the little owl-thing can only see the world through their phones), almost a value-free surrogate for the computer, tablet and phone screens that compete for childrens’ attention.
If read as a story about technological intervention in childhood, then, it’s an optimistic, sweet-natured one, where the future of interaction between flesh and advanced machine only enhances humanity rather than turning everyone into distant approximations of family members or engaging friends. It gives its lasting power to its young cast and trusts them to do the right thing. Aliens come and go, promises the movie, but the kids will be all right.