Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt, Brian "Astro" Bradley, and Teo Halm

I can’t say that Earth to Echo fails totally as children’s entertainment; the grade-schoolers at the preview screening I attended seemed to enjoy it just fine. Yet I’ve seen grade-schoolers transfixed by TV commercials as well, and no responsible parent (or so I hope) would show a child advertisements for 90 minutes straight. Echo often feels like a feature-length smartphone commercial; when it doesn’t, it comes off as an inept knockoff of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and J.J. Abrams’s Spielberg pastiche Super 8 (2011). If the movie is a waste, at least it’s an instructive one, signaling just how offensive children’s entertainment might become in the YouTube era.

Like many recent horror movies, Echo takes the form of a found-footage documentary. The protagonists are three tech-savvy preteen boys who constantly document their lives on smartphones and make YouTube videos out of the material. Director Dave Green (working from a script by Henry Gayden) presents their compulsive self-recording as though it were a natural part of growing up and not solipsistic or creepy. Regardless of the ethical implications, this approach makes for particularly uninspired filmmaking. There’s not a single decently framed shot in the film, and the visual syntax, modeled all too closely on amateur YouTube videos, perpetuates the misguided notion that there’s no difference between a theater projection and the display screen of a phone. So much for the wonder of the movies.

The young heroes describe themselves as outsiders, though the child actors who play them are so bland and poised that it’s hard to believe this most basic aspect of the plot. As the film opens, the upper-middle-class Nevada suburb where they live is about to be demolished to make way for a new interstate (a weird allusion to eminent-domain-related controversies that probably holds no interest for the target audience). Strange things start happening around town in the days leading up to the demolition: all cell phones break down at once, and government agents collect the damaged goods, citing some vague federal protocol. Too attached to their phones to relinquish them, the boys hide them from the feds. Soon their phones start receiving odd visual messages; one of these turns out to be a map, and the boys follow it into the desert one night, where they discover an extraterrestrial has crash-landed.

The boys greet their discovery with the sort of belabored, ersatz enthusiasm one finds in toy commercials; that the alien—a metallic little guy who lights up when people talk to it—resembles a toy only reinforces the association. In the second half of Earth to Echo the kids spend a long night helping the creature find parts for its broken spaceship, evading the feds who want to capture it, and recording lots of cool images for their YouTube channel. “Your friends are still your friends even if they’re far away,” one of the boys narrates in the final moments. Perhaps the alien can access their vlog from outer space.