For family fun at the movies, you can't beat this shameless sci-fi update of Steven Spielberg's "E.T." It begins with three preteens, inseparable friends, whose families are being forced to move out of their middle class neighborhood in suburban Nevada because of a highway construction project. There's tech-savvy Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley), who documents his every waking moment on a video camera; Alex (Teo Halm), an earnest foster kid with sensitive separation issues; and nerdy Munch (Reese Hartwig), whose awkwardness adds comic relief.
Toting a video camera, they plan one last night together, biking out into the desert to investigate odd messages and a mysterious map that has "barfed up" on their cellphones. That's where they find an odd-looking cylinder, lying on the ground next to a transformer. It turns out to be a damaged little alien that resembles a robotic owl with glowing blue eyes. Because of the sound of its electronic chirps, they dub it Echo, and learn -- from asking simple "yes" and "no" questions -- that it desperately needs some missing metallic parts in order to return "home" to its mother ship. That's when they're unexpectedly joined by their pretty-and-popular classmate, Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt), who stands up to the shadowy, quasi-government bad guys.
Audaciously scripted by Henry Gayden -- with nostalgic nods to "The Goonies," "Stand by Me," "Flight of the Navigator," "WALL-E," "Short Circuit" and "Super 8," as well as numerous found footage, mock documentaries -- and energetically directed by Dave Green, it copies most of "E.T." plot points, including youthful vulnerability and empowerment, bicycles, even the movie poster. To the first-time filmmakers' credit, they cleverly update the concept to the cellphone era and use the natural talents of these appealing screen newcomers. The background of this low-budget project is intriguing, since it was developed and made in 2012 at Disney as "Untitled Wolf Adventure"; and for inexplicable reasons, it was surreptitiously sold to Relativity Media.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Earth to Echo" is a sweet, extraterrestrial 7, filled with wonder and adventure.