The key to contacting extraterrestrial life may be our children.
At least, that's been a Hollywood interpretation since “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” first phoned home in 1982, showing us that not all outer space aliens want to zap us with death rays. Some of them, like E.T., have hearts — big, glowing ones.
Since then, the children-find-a-friendly-alien-and-have-to-protect-it-from-the-evil-government movie is becoming a subgenre. There was “Mac and Me” (1988), about an alien on the run from NASA who befriends a boy in a wheelchair. (Mac stands for Mysterious Alien Creature.) “Super 8” (2011) featured a group of precocious young filmmakers who find an alien and help it to return to outer space.
Now there is “Earth to Echo,” a family film about a group of preteens whose wonky smartphones lead them to a tiny, damaged alien robot — who looks like a cross between WALL-E and a baby owl — after his spacecraft crash-lands in the middle of the Nevada desert. They name him Echo. As their last hurrah before a mysterious construction company demolishes their neighborhood and displaces them all, the gang helps Echo repair himself and find the key to his spaceship so the little guy can return home.
“Earth to Echo” is told through the children's perspective, using a boy named Tuck's camera glasses, iPhones and other hand-held devices to give the movie a realistic “queasy-cam” found-footage effect that's been around since a trio of young filmmakers got lost witch-hunting in 1999 in “The Blair Witch Project.”
Director Dave Green and writers Andrew Panay and Henry Gayden were all on board in approaching “Earth to Echo” with the DIY filming technique.
“With some of the tools you have as a filmmaker, you tie one arm behind your back,” Green said. “It's challenging you to fence with the other hand.
“But what I think the advantage was, it really challenged us to tell the story from the kids' point of view and create an intimacy with those characters that you really wouldn't have otherwise.”
Another piece of technology the film uses is little Echo itself, which combines practical and special effects. Legacy Effects, the company that brought much larger robots to life in movies like “Iron Man 3” and “Pacific Rim,” created Echo.
Sometimes, Echo is totally computer generated. But in the quieter, more intimate moments, like when Teo Halm — who plays Alex, a foster child — holds a wounded Echo in his palm, the alien was a real piece of equipment.
“I found it easier to connect with him when he was right in front of me,” said Halm, now 15.
“It's harder to connect when you're talking to the palm of your hand, saying ‘I'm going to miss you.' ”
After filming was completed, “Earth to Echo” was shelved by Disney for about a year before it was sold to Relativity Media; it finally lands in theaters Wednesday.
The delay between filming and distribution means the four young actors who star in the film now have deeper, more articulate voices than the children they were in “Earth to Echo.” Along with Halm, they are Reese Hartwig, 15; Brian “Astro” Bradley, 17; and Ella Wahlestedt, 15.
Halm said people like children-with-friendly-aliens movies “because they have something for all ages.”
“You have the cute and cuddly Echo, which kids will love,” Halm said. “Then you have the edgier scenes, which bring in teenagers and adults. That's what I think a true family movie is, when you can get everybody to enjoy it.”
Comparisons are easy to make to “E.T.” and somewhat to “Super 8,” which was a throwback to the 1980s in every aspect including being named after an antiquated filming technique. But “Earth to Echo” grounds itself in modern-day technology used by today's youth, just like “E.T.” did in its time.
“Earth to Echo” has cellphones, while “E.T.” had walkie-talkies. Films are not made on 8 mm film anymore, as in “Super 8,” not when you can make a video on a smartphone and post it to YouTube.
At least children still ride bicycles.
“If Echo was found today, this is how it would have happened,” said Hartwig, who plays Munch in the movie. “This is how it would have been filmed. This is how people would have seen it. If kids had found (Echo), that's probably what they would have done.”
None of the child stars has seen “E.T.” Bradley, who as Tuck filmed most of the action, said he doesn't even watch science fiction.
By Adam Poulisse: It doesn't always have to be a war of the worlds. Every once in a while, an alien wants to make contact with puny Earthlings just to say "s'up?" For every "Mars Attacks!" there's a "Paul." For every "Independence Day" there's an "Earth to Echo." Here's a list of friendly aliens in pop culture that like us (and in return, we like them).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Name of alien: Unnamed.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban.
About the alien: Tiny humanoids and spiderlike aliens gave special signals to humans to let them know they wanted to make first contact. And, they gave playing with your food some cosmic significance.
Legacy/pop culture impact: Spielberg's movie showed aliens wanted to rendezvous at Devils Tower in Wyoming to greet us, not grill us.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Name of alien: E.T.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton.
About the alien: A brown, bottle-necked alien with a glowing heart who is stranded on Earth and wants to return home.
Legacy/pop culture impact: Spielberg once again brought us a friendly alien, the most famous of all. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" was the highest grossing movie for a decade and spawned dolls, clothes, decorative furniture, theme park rides and the burning desire in our hearts that bicycles could fly.
Name of alien: Alf (Alien Life Form).
Creators: Paul Fusco and Tom Patchett.
Starring: Paul Fusco, Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory.
About the alien: Unless you're a cat, you have little to fear from Alf (voiced by Fusco), a furry brown aardvark-like alien that crash-landed in the Tanner family's suburban home after his home planet Melmac was destroyed.
Legacy/pop culture impact: "Alf," which ran on NBC, introduced a sort of alien technology of its own: It was the first television series to be presented in Dolby Surround sound. Alf was a pop culture sensation for its time. In 2012, Sony Animation purchased the rights to the show to develop a live-action/CGI "Alf" movie, with Fusco once again voicing the titular alien.
*batters not included (1987)
Name of aliens: Fix-Its.
Director: Matthew Robbins.
Starring: Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Frank McRae.
About the aliens: Tiny, hovering, mechanical aliens befriend an apartment building's tenants and help save their building from demolition.
Legacy/pop culture impact: Spielberg was executive producer on "*batteries not included." The movie was co-written by Brad Bird, who went on to write for "The Simpsons" and several Pixar movies.
Mac and Me (1988)
Name of alien: Mac (Mysterious Alien Creature).
Director: Steward Raffill.
Starring: Jonathan Ward, Christine Ebersole, Tina Caspary, Lauren Stanley.
About the alien: An affectionate homage/blatant cash grab of the E.T. craze some years before, Mac is a small orange alien that escapes NASA scientists and befriends a paraplegic boy in a wheelchair.
Legacy/pop culture impact: "Mac and Me" has received notoriety over the years, but for all the wrong reasons. The movie holds a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is panned by critics for being an E.T. rip-off with too much product placement. The movie has become a running gag between Paul Rudd and Conan O'Brien over the years, with Rudd showing a clip from "Mac and Me" on O'Brien's talk show instead of the movie he is there to promote.
Name of alien: Paul.
Director: Greg Mottola.
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen.
About the alien: Paul, an Area 51 escapee, is friendly, but maybe not kid-friendly. The small gray alien (voiced by Rogen) is crass and crude, cracking wise and making inappropriate comments. But at least he wasn't aiming a death ray at the planet.
Legacy/pop culture impact: "Paul" was ripe with geek humor and pop culture references, all the way up to its cameo by Sigourney Weaver of "Alien" fame.
Name of alien: Kal-El.
Directors: Richard Donner, Richard Lester, Sidney J. Furie, Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder.
Starring: Superman has been played by Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh and, most recently, Henry Cavill.
About the alien: He doesn't have tentacles or scaly skin, but the muscular, chiseled-chin Superman is still an alien. After his home planet, Krypton, is destroyed, Superman lands on Earth to protect it. Legacy/pop culture impact: The indestructible DC Comics superhero has appeared in six movies since 1978, with a seventh on the way in 2016, pitting Superman against Batman for the first time in a live-action movie. (Batman, of course, is an Earthling.) A sequel to the 2013 film "Man of Steel" was recently announced for 2018.
Follow Adam Poulisse on Twitter: @AdamPoulisse