Earth to Echo is a slender kiddie flick about a quartet of preteens and their palm-sized alien pal that's at once bland, well-intentioned and utterly terrifying about the mental development of modern children. As in the most honest kids films, our five-foot heroes admit to being isolated, unhappy and cowed by the adult world. Their Nevada suburb will be torn down tomorrow, scattering these three best friends — braggadocios Tuck (the one-named Astro from X-Factor), chubby and cowardly Munch (Reese Hartwig) and unthreateningly handsome Alex (Teo Halm) — to different schools, and plucking the cute blonde (Ella Wahlestedt) they all crush on out of their universe before she even knew they shared one.
On their last night together the guys dupe their parents with a fake slumber party, reroute the grownups' incoming calls to Munch's cell and bike off into the desert to track down a blinking treasure mysteriously beamed to their smartphone maps. (Sir Walter Raleigh would look up from his battered scrolls and sadly shake his head.) The big-mouthed Tuck, a tyke who's always blurting his own name like the abandoned son of Kanye West, has brought along a video camera, as his interest in the quest itself is dwarfed by the possibility of shooting the next viral hit. After all, what's the point of meeting an alien if there's no record of it on YouTube?
Director Dave Green is less a feature filmmaker than a juggler of screens. The found-footage gimmick — Earth to Echo's background canvas — is simply a gateway that allows for the visual shorthand of the boys shoving their phones at the lens. Instead of plunging into the woods, they stare at their GPS while swashbuckling through strip malls and the occasional small-town Main Street. Occasionally, Green zooms out for the Google Earth view of their quest, complete with an arrow pointing toward their location. The result feels both techno-immediate and emotionally distancing: There are so many cameras between us and the action that it's like attending a Pink Floyd laser-light show and watching the magic through the recorder on your iPhone.
Perhaps Green and his writer, Henry Gayden, think that electronic artifice is the best way to tell a story to tweens. (And adults who can't watch a movie at home without playing on their own devices should think twice before we tsk-tsk.) More likely, however, they're just savvily, and perhaps cynically, seeking to be the first to surf what I fear will be the new cinematic language: automatic Google Glass.
At least their alien feels at home in this digital new world. Though it's from outer space, it's retrofitted for Radio Shack: It speaks in ringtones and uses their phone cameras for eyes. Forget the old-man wrinkles of E.T. Earth to Echo seems to have found through focus-testing that children no longer want blood or bile — they want sanitized bleeps. Instead of wooing their discovery with Reese's Pieces, these kids dote over his battery charge, and when they attempt to strengthen his legs with pen caps, we're caught off-guard by the fact that these kids still have pens. The thing is so cute they inevitably fall in love — it resembles a robotic lemur — but at the same time, we suspect they can't quite accept that it's sentient. In a dramatic near-death moment, one boy cries, "Please, you have to work!" not the biologically accurate, "Please, you have to live!"
Their new friend sends them on a quest to find the missing parts needed to help launch his spaceship. They are scattered everywhere that young boys find mysterious and alarming: a bar, a pawn shop, a dark arcade and a beautiful babe's bedroom. They ping around Nevada fast enough that there's scarcely time to question the plot. (How on Earth did a piece of the alien's key get in a girl's jewelry box?) On their heels are some not-scary-enough adults who are most startling when they forcibly escort the gang to their control center, which houses an entire wall mounted with commandeered cell phones pinned in neat rows like dead butterflies.
Earth to Echo has scant thrills on its own terms, but is deeply disturbing in the margins. Without chagrin or alarm bells, it posits that the youth of today are useless without their pocket computers — when swiping a getaway car, the first thing they do is Google how to drive. With the film's final thesis, that distance between friends, be it suburban or planetary, doesn't matter as long as you can text, Earth to Echo has officially cursed the next generation to hermetic solitude. On a baser level, it blithely takes for granted that children trust gizmos more than grownups. Despite a government worker warning them — correctly — that the alien's underground spaceship is so big that it could rip up their town like a dandelion, they barely blink before continuing to rank this strange being's happiness over their parents' houses, the triumph of the childish good over the ethical right. Future intergalactic overlords: Forget bombing the White House, just ask a hacker whiz kid to do you a solid.