“E.T.” is a film that succeeds on so many levels that it’s easy to understand how it became a phenomenon. It works as an ode to unlikely emotional connection and the purity of youthful friendship. It works as iconic science fiction, despite the various technical limitations Steven Spielberg was up against. It works as a lived-in study of single-parent family life. It works as a magically heightened portrait of western suburbia. It works so well that Neil Diamond was moved to song.
From its quaint trailers to its illuminated-finger poster image, the family sci-fi adventure “Earth to Echo” feels designed to, yes, echo Spielberg’s achievement — deliberately and, you’d guess, maybe cynically. Either way, you quickly glimpse what first-time director Dave Green is attempting, and you might think, good luck with that.
As it turns out, Green and his cast deliver a wonderful surprise. Echo himself, a generically precious alien, is the least of it. The funny, moving, authentic bond among the kids in the movie is the unadvertised draw. And the tone is actually cooler than the perkily vanilla ad spots hint, thanks to a ubiquitous found-footage aesthetic that somehow makes the form feel like it hasn’t been done to death.
Camcorder confessionals and spy-specs shots lay out the story’s intriguing setup: Nerdy braniac Munch (Reese Hartwig), resilient foster child Alex (Teo Halm), and camera-happy Tuck (junior rapper and “X-Factor” contestant Brian “Astro” Bradley) couldn’t be tighter. But they’re about to be split up, permanently, by a planned freeway expansion that’s displacing their entire Nevada housing tract. On their final day together, they notice something funky going on with their electronics — their smartphones have “barfed” all over the screens. (How’s that for a kid’s-eye view of the action?) Munch believes the explanation lies somewhere out in the desert, so the trio feed their parents some sleepover fibs, hop on their BMX bikes (Spielberg again), and ride off into the night to go searching.
Some apparent junk they stumble across is quickly revealed to be a tiny shuttle pod housing a sentient robo-owl. The boys dub the alien Echo for his chirpy eagerness to communicate — his techno-organic POV shots are promptly added to the footage mix — and they begin working to help him get to his missing ship. Not-so-mean-girl Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt) joins them along the way, but the guy stuff is the engaging focus. Alex at one point gets waylaid by a security guard, and subsequently lashes out at his friends in a dramatically deft expression of abandonment fears he can’t articulate. In a flash of uncharacteristic recklessness, Munch stows away with government heavies out to get Echo, and videotapes a just-in-case goodbye to his pals that genuinely makes us feel for the kid.
The movie isn’t as fully realized as its inspiration. Its nominal star is less a character than a cute effect. We can hear the trolls now: “Clash of the Titans” (1981) called — they want their robot bird back. And the representation of “scary” adult authority isn’t nearly as artistically sophisticated as Spielberg’s. But the young cast’s interaction is terrific. You might come for the turn-on-your-heartlight riff, but you’ll stay for the connection the boys share.