In the family-friendly sci-fi film "Earth to Echo," four grade-schoolers discover a space alien stranded in their suburban Nevada neighborhood and decide to help the little guy go home. How does this differ from "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," you ask? Barely at all, except on one point: These days, the kids have iPhones.
That's about the extent of this movie's update on Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic. Here, as the residents of Mulberry Woods prepare to leave their soon-to-be-razed homes, several young friends notice strange goings-on. "It looks like your iPhone barfed," says Tuck, a wiseacre played by Brian "Astro" Bradley, but the splattery patterns on their screens turn out to be maps. Tuck, his cool pal Alex (Teo Halm) and nerdy sidekick Munch (Reese Hartwig) follow the clues to a lonely spot in the desert, where they discover a creature not of this world.
Perhaps creature isn't the right word for Echo, who is actually a tiny machine with owlish eyes and a heart that radiates angelic blue light. Unlike E.T., whose ugly mug grew on us as we got to know him, Echo is immediately, aggressively cutesy-wutesy, a Tamagotchi version of R2D2 crossed with a Beanie Baby. As the boys scurry around town -- they're joined by a token girl, Emma (Ella Linnea Wahlestedt) -- Echo gathers random pieces of machinery to feather his massive nest of a spacecraft.
Thinly written by Henry Gayden and choppily directed by Dave Green, "Earth to Echo" is presented as Tuck's video diary, a conceit that at least allows the bright young cast to create a loose, freewheeling camaraderie. Otherwise, though, the movie tracks "E.T." so closely -- right down to the coldhearted government types led by Dr. Madsen (Jason Gray-Stanford) -- that you can almost hear the legal ice cracking beneath the children's bicycle tires.
PLOT Four suburban kids help a stranded space alien find his way home.
CAST Brian "Astro" Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Linnea Wahlestedt
BOTTOM LINE So sappy, cutesy and cloying that it makes "E.T." look like "Citizen Kane."