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"Transformers" took over movie theaters last weekend and the same will probably be true for this upcoming Fourth of July weekend. "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" is the top box office debut of the year. So this may not seem the best moment to bring out a sci-fi movie made on a budget that wouldn't cover catering for Optimus Prime. But small has its virtues, and our movie critic Bob Mondello says that's the case with the new kid flick "Earth To Echo."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Eighth-grader Tuck is about to lose his two best friends. Their families are moving from Nevada. It's their last night together so they're doing what kids do - taping goodbyes for YouTube which is why they have cameras and cell phones with them when they find an odd piece of metal in the desert about the size of the thermos. And it makes noise when they pick it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EARTH TO ECHO")

REESE C. HARTWIG: (As Munch) It, like, imitated my ring tone.

MONDELLO: Tuck grabs the video camera from his bike, and just as he's about to start describing what's happening, something happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EARTH TO ECHO")

BRIAN BRADLEY: (As Tuck) All right, so a couple of seconds ago our phones went crazy, bananas, look. I don't even know what that is. Alex's phone turned on by itself and started filming. Don't try to act like it's not cool. That is weird.

TEO HALM: (As Alex) It's showing us where we are.

HARTWIG: (As Munch) And you don't find that creepy?

HALM: (As Alex) We should follow the map.

HARTWIG: (As Munch) How about no?

BRADLEY: (As Tuck) How about yes? We wanted a last night together, so what do you call this?

HARTWIG: (As Munch) A trap?

MONDELLO: Well, that's possible. Though when the thermos opens up and reveals a glowing, metallic owl-like critter inside - well, seriously, how cool is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EARTH TO ECHO")

HALM: (As Alex) Munch, you have to check this out. This is amazing.

HARTWIG: (As Munch) Is it? Because I think it's scary as balls. I mean, obviously people are looking for it...

BRADLEY: (As Tuck) Munch...

HARTWIG: (As Munch) ...It has access to our voicemails and our texts and our ringtones.

BRADLEY: (As Tuck) How do you even know it's a he? Are you a dude?

(ROBOTIC BEEPING)

HALM: (As Alex) Wait, you understood us.

MONDELLO: The idea is that the kids are recording all of this themselves using smart phones and even a camera hidden in a pair of glasses which means first-time director Dave Green can knock himself out with impressive but presumably inexpensive special-effects. He can also set his film apart from the one that's clearly paying homage to - no coincidence, the title "Earth To Echo" abbreviates as E.T. Echo - the echoes of Spielberg's classic are everywhere, kids zooming around on bikes, cell phones so central you can't help thinking E.T. phone home. Government bad guys whose first impulse on finding a little guy from the stars is to dissect him. Though they'll have to catch him first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EARTH TO ECHO")

HALM: (As Alex) OK, now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Look out. Oh, no.

MONDELLO: But the story's been rethought not just to do the found footage thing but in culturally interesting ways. Tuck is an African-American kid who's best buds are a picked-on nerd and an adopted foster child. A teenage girl joins them midway through, and if she's kind of an afterthought, she's still more central than Elliot's little sister was in "E.T." These are not huge advances, but they do suggest the film makers wanted to broaden the formula little - make it more inclusive - do something a little adventurous even. Kind of like "Earth To Echo's" tween heroes. I'm Bob Mondello.

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