It's so easy to compare Earth to Echo to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that it would feel disingenuous not to. Both are about children from suburban subdivisions encountering an extra-terrestrial being; both are metaphors for the experience of being a child in a subdivision, though here things start to break: E.T. is about childhood isolation and friendlessness, while Earth to Echo is about kids who already have friends - in fact, it splits protagonist duties three ways - and the alien serves as a metaphor for their awareness that in the next few days, they'll all be living in different states. And while E.T. uses the relationship between boy and alien as a very clear, very moving organising metaphor, Earth to Echo is sloppy and muddy and it is a metaphor for an emotional process more because the movie says it is, than because it has done the necessary work to prove it.

Although, the point remains that it at least attempts to have that kind of metaphor, and that makes it better than a lot of kids' movies, which seem at best to have a fairly patronising, if not altogether hate-filled attitude about kids. For all its litany of failures at cinema and as a narrative, Earth to Echo at least manages to treat with all due dignity the dramatic conflict about three boys (it's incredibly difficult to tell from the material presented onscreen if they're meant to be young high schoolers or old middle schoolers) who are convinced that life itself is about to end because they're apart to have the first major social separation of their young lives. At no point does the film ever condescend to this theme: it presents it with the autumnal sorrow that a chaos-ridden teen might actually feel in the face of such a life-altering event, and refuses to bring a grown-up perspective to the characters' lives. And for this, at least, I admire it, since I have the feeling that I need to admire it for something.

The film takes the shape of a documentary made after the fact by one of the main participants, the camera-addicted Tuck (Brian "Astro" Bradley). Which means, yes, it's another one of those damn first-person movies (by this point, the description "found footage" no longer feels correct enough to use), though one that at least preemptively explains why the characters lug cameras around all the time. Initially, Tuck wants to film an agitprop piece about the freeway construction project about to destroy the Nevada community where he and his friends live; this eventually turns into an exposรฉ of the conspiracy to find and detain an extraterrestrial, with the construction project a pretext to clear out an area where the alien's ship appears to be buried. But that suggests that Earth to Echo has a much more definitive, sturdy shape than it actually does: it actually plays as a series of fetch quests, with Tuck and his two BFFs, Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig), using their smartphones, all of them weirdly garbled but depicting what look like maps, to find, first, a small alien being the size of a squirrel that communicates only in beeps - they name it Echo and decree it to be a male - and then to find the pieces of metal that he can manipulate using telekinetic powers into parts to rebuild his spaceship, which beggars all my comparative skills by being, in fact, about the exact size of a breadbox. Along the way, the trio picks up a girl, Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), and there is some hint of class resentment between her and Alex, in addition to the expected adolescent sexual tension, though perhaps realising that they're making a children's movie, in the United States, the filmmakers drop that theme after its first appearance.

The film gains absolutely nothing from its first-person aesthetic, and there's at least a few minutes of Echo POV footage that straight-up defy the explanation we've been given for that aesthetic, but the style is at this point too entrenched to die for at least a few more years, so the best thing to do is to grit your teeth and ignore it, rather than try to logic it out, I've long since decided. Take that away, and Earth to Echo is a perfectly ordinary attempt at "doing a Spielberg", done with a perfectly satisfactory if derivative story by Henry Gayden & Andrew Panay, and noticeably droopy direction from Dave Green, all of them making their feature debuts. If the film has a problem, instead of at least a handful, it's that the filmmakers are willing to let clichรฉs do the work for them, even when that makes no sense: the character of Munch is written with the peculiar interests and awkward social tendencies of the Fat Kid, given a Fat Kid name, and Hartwig is directed to play the Fat Kid body language, despite not actually being fat. That's an extreme, but every characterisation seems to have been imported without change from the Big Book of Kids' Adventure Movie Templates, especially the deeply thankless figure of the Token Girl. I'll cop to respecting the filmmakers for making the vaguely nerdish Tuck black, and not having that be an important or commented-upon detail, but just something in the background.

The stock characters are really more a symptom than anything, though, of a certain slack, "let's get through this, already" attitude to storytelling that pervades everything. Echo, looking like a cross between the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans and a Disney rodent, is fairly adorable, and used just sparingly enough to remain special throughout the movie, but it's a film otherwise devoid of creative, impressive visuals (that's the damn first-person gimmick for you, ain't it?), and there's no real emotional depth to it, no point where the film reaches inside your chest and wrings your heart. No matter how many times Halm looks distraught and wan, the film never makes the case for what this story actually means to the characters, and only the framing drama of the impending move really gives Earth to Echo much of any heft, while it fails to inform most of the central 45 minutes whatsoever. It's that peculiar hollowness that makes the film so aimless, even more than the copycat story and dramatis personae. Green and company know the notes from looking at the films of their own childhood, but they don't have the soul to play them right, and while the film is a perfectly sound waste of 89 minutes, I can't imagine anyone in years to come ever regarding it as a precious relic of their youth.