One should view "Earth to Echo" with a couple of qualifications.
The first is, yes, of course, it's like Steven Spielberg's "E.T." in that a group of kids bond with a cute alien and, fighting shady government types, go on a bicycle-rattling quest to shuttle their new little friend home. To resist the obvious is futile, thus "Earth to Echo" pays its rightful tribute and moves on.
The second qualification is that this movie obviously tries appealing to our emotional memories of that "last summer" so many of us had as kids, before someone moved away, before we started middle school, high school, or whatever. That, and not space aliens, is what people will be ruminating on as they leave the theater.
The space alien stuff is pretty fun, too, as long as one can suspend enough disbelief. That will be easy enough for kids; the rest of us may wish it were still that easy.
Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley), Munch (Reese C. Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm) are inseparable friends facing big changes. Their Nevada neighborhood is being ripped up for a highway project, and everybody has to move -- some farther away than others. But just a couple of days before they're supposed to leave, the boys start getting strange transmissions on their cell phones.
Of course, this is their last chance to do something memorable before they split up and -- fueled by their suspicions of what might "really" be happening in their neighborhood -- they go on an adventure portrayed through lots of on-the-ground cinematography that makes it feel like you're bumping along on someone's handlebars. It can get a bit old.
Along with their friend Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt -- who provides the seemingly mandated preteen gender tension) -- our heroes seek to solve a mystery with just enough of that "Goonies"-like innocent determination to make us root for them.
Once they find their tiny stranded alien, the mystery shifts into more of a thrill ride, as the kids have to figure out how to get their owlish friend back to where it belongs while they're being tracked through various late night haunts like an all-night diner, biker bar and house party.
But where "Earth to Echo" falls short of a film like "E.T.," or even "The Goonies," is in developing its characters. The kids are nice enough -- played by actors who do what's asked of them -- but director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden don't give us reasons to really care about them (Munch is no Chunk from "The Goonies"). The moviemakers tell us there's a bond between these characters, but they don't really show us.
Nor do Green and Gayden give us many moments that we'll remember. The ending here is satisfying, but there is nothing to make you cry along with the unforgettable face of a broken-up Drew Barrymore.
"Earth to Echo" will likely get flattened by bigger summer offerings. But it's decent enough to serve as a warm, uncomplicated and under-the-radar alternative that's good for the whole family. Just don't expect Spielberg.
Rating: PG (some action and peril, mild language)
Cast: Brian "Astro" Bradley, Reese C. Hartwig, Teo Halm, Ella Wahlestedt, Jason
Director: David Green
Running time: 1 hour,