Why Earth to Echo feels like E.T. remade for the digital age

One element that could not possibly be from 1982 is the relentless use of online social media, Google Maps and other technological video tricks that set it firmly in the online age.

The movie poster for Earth to Echo. Courtesy Relativity Media
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The similarities between Earth to Echo and E.T. are more than striking. But reviews are mixed on whether it is an inspired updating of the Steven Spielberg classic, or a cheap knock-off.

The family-fun movie, out in time for the United States’ Fourth of July holiday weekend, recounts a group of children’s adventures when they find a cute-looking alien stranded on Earth and help it to return home, unbeknown to their parents.

It even includes heavy use of bicycles, although not silhouetted against the moon as in the iconic image from Spielberg’s 1982 film.

"There is an alien and there are kids who take him home, and bikes of course," says the writer Henry Gayden, who made the film with the first-time feature director Dave Green. Earth to Echo is out in the US on Wednesday; the UAE release date hasn't been announced yet.

“That’s what we really were going after and were inspired by,” says Gayden, openly acknowledging the influences of films the 30-something filmmakers grew up watching.

One element that could not possibly be from 1982 is the relentless use of online social media, Google Maps and other technological video tricks that set it firmly in the online age.

The film is made in the “found footage” style – or rather, like a home movie put together by one of the three main boy protagonists after a spectacular all-night adventure.

From that point of view, it resembles another Spielberg production: 2011's Super 8 by the director J J Abrams, while another clear inspiration is 1985's The Goonies.

The teenage schoolboy and budding filmmaker Tuck, with his pals Alex and Munch, live in a Nevada neighbourhood condemned to demolition to make way for a motorway – or so they think.

Their curiosity is sparked when odd signals appear on mobile phones, prompting them to set off on their bikes for one last adventure together on the night before they are due to say their farewells.

The signals lead them out into the desert, where they find the owl-like alien they name Echo, who is stranded on planet Earth and needs their help to find his way home.

While most of the movie is filmed in shaky hand-cam style, there are some spectacular visual effects, notably when the adventurers are about to be hit head-on by a big rig truck and the earth-moving finale.

Green cites early Tim Burton movies and Ghostbusters as other influences on his filmmaking.

“They were movies that took you on a bit of a ride. Those were the movies I grew up watching and loving. It’s a tone that we love that I felt had kind of gone away recently,” he says.

The movie was made on a relatively modest budget, about US$10 million (Dh36.7m).

Reviews have been mostly positive, but include some barbs.

Variety refers to its "disappointingly one-dimensional approach to story and character" and the "occasionally nauseating handheld camerawork".

The Hollywood Reporter says the film "flaunts its obvious influences with all the fresh novelty of an app update". The Hollywood Reporter adds: "Everything regarding this sci-fi adventure, right down to the movie poster, is blatant regarding its intentions: It clearly sees itself as E.T. for the Y2K set."

But acknowledging the irresistible appeal of the alien with glowing neon-blue eyes that speaks in "cute" electronic chirps, The Hollywood Reporter says: "Sometimes even the most shameless of knock-offs can't be denied".