LOS ANGELES - 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 Spielberg classic, or a cheap knockoff.
The family fun movie, out in time for America's 4th 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, unbeknownst to their parents.
It even includes heavy use of bicycles, although not silhouetted against the moon as in the iconic image from Steven Spielberg's 1982 film.
"There is an alien and there are kids, who take him home, and bikes of course," said writer Henry Gayden, who made the film -- out Wednesday -- with first-time feature director Dave Green.
"That's what we really were going after and were inspired by," he said in an interview, 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 Eigh" by director J.J. Abrams, while other clear inspirations include 1985's "The Goonies."
Teenage schoolboy and budding filmmaker Tuck, with his pals Alex and Munch, live in a Nevada neighborhood condemned to demolition to make way for a freeway -- or so they think.
Their curiosity is sparked when odd signals appear on cellphones, prompting them to set off on their bikes for one last adventure together, 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 dub Echo, who has been left stranded on planet Earth and who needs their help to find his way home.
While most of the movie is filmed in shaky handcam style, there are some spectacular visual effects, notably when the adventurers are about to be hit head-on by a big rig truck, and for the earth-moving finale.
Director Green cited 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 told AFP.
The movie's budget ended up around the relatively modest $10 million mark.
"Studios are probably attracted to what could pose itself to be a lean budget with a film," Green said.
Reviews have been mostly positive, but included some barbs.
Industry journal Variety refers to its "disappointingly one-dimensional approach to story and character" and the "occasionally nauseating handheld camerawork."
The Hollywood Reporter said the film "flaunts its obvious influences with all the fresh novelty of an app update."
"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," it added.
But acknowledging the irresistible appeal of the alien with glowing neon-blue eyes that speaks in "cute" electronic chirps, The Hollywood Reporter said "sometimes even the most shameless of knockoffs can't be denied."
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