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Crater

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find movies geared toward tweens that avoid talking down to them: It feels like less and less movies are willing to be bleak, to deal with intense politics and real loss. “Crater,” a sci-fi young adult space flick now playing on Disney+, is such a film willing to take a risk.

You can tell from the opening frame, which sees a group of kids furiously working to jump-start a rover before the alarms notify the guards of their activities. A meteor shower is coming, instigating a lockdown that’ll trap them in their lunar colony if they don’t leave soon. It’s not just a race against the clock that gives this film a spirited opening; it’s the first few minutes being an allusion to James Gray’s “Ad Astra” that tells you director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”) is unafraid of taking a big swing.

Living in 2257, Caleb (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) is in mourning. His father (Kid Cudi) recently died on the job, leaving him an orphan in the lunar mining colony they call home. Because his parents are dead, he is granted the opportunity to travel to the paradisal planet Omega, a 75-year journey that’ll require him to be cryogenically frozen. For Caleb, it’s a chance to be elevated from poverty to a kind of utopia. The situation for the young man, however, is far from ideal. He doesn’t want to leave his cadre of friends: Dylan (Billy Barratt), for instance, comes from a troubled family; Borney (Orson Hong) lives fearfully of the ghost stories his older brother tells him; and Marcus (Thomas Boyce) battles an enlarged heart. They know Caleb is leaving soon, forever, and want to make his final day with him special.  

The ensuing adventure they plan, which might involve the legend of a hidden treasure, somewhat recalls “The Goonies.” Caleb’s parents also used to visit a crater that has a brook running through it (a fantastical description). It’s an area that often reminded them of Earth, and it was Caleb’s dad’s dying wish that he visit the crater. Caleb and his friends just need to figure out a way to leave the colony without tripping the alarms. The kids enlist the help of Addison (McKenna Grace), who just arrived on the moon with her father after his messy divorce. A scientist, her father has all of the access codes. It doesn’t take much pleading to get Addison to agree. She misses Earth (a planet the other kids, who were born on the lunar surface, have never known) and wants to leave the stuffy confines of the colony. 

“Crater” is quite familiar in its references and might be too on the nose (at one point, John Griffin’s script nearly rips off, word-for-word, Ben Affleck’s speech from “Good Will Hunting”). But that’s nothing poisonous for kid's movies; they often contain winking nods to the adult films the creators love. 

And yet, “Crater” is more than its fun adventure. That’s not to say there aren’t hijinks as these kids gleefully drive the rover on the moon’s surface. One “game” sees them using an oxygen tank to shoot themselves into space. It’s all fun until the tether that keeps them from flying off into space breaks. Situations like this cause them to venture off the beaten path. Along the way, a bleak, politically cogent film emerges. 

Without spoiling too much, the film thinks about the inequality that leaves many living on the lunar surface as a permanent workforce while far wealthier individuals fly off to the paradisal Omega. The kids so desperately, so to speak, want to be “the masters of their own destiny.” On their journey, they pass half-built cities and abandoned futuristic test homes emblematic of the half-promises fully broken by the local government. This is also a pro-union movie that sees festering inequality as a symptom of nefarious capitalists. The themes add depth to the lives of the kids who can’t imagine a future beyond the confines of the colony. Each young actor also skirts the line between saccharine and endearing. And Kid Cudi, who always has an underrated sensitivity, provides the ache that grounds Russell-Bailey’s deeply interior performance. 

While the graphics are largely passable—it never feels totally futuristic, more like a rendered background—and the ending is a tad too neat, Alvarez doesn’t take the easy route. He allows Caleb to live through the forlornness he must endure and gives him space to embrace the difficult reality he must now face. “Crater” might be too dark on a thematic level for some tweens, but the light it brings into the genre makes Alvarez’s film a soul-stirring escapade, one that introduces young audiences to ways to reform the fractured world they call home. 

On Disney+ now.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

Crater movie poster

Crater (2023)

Rated PG for thematic material, action/peril and language.

105 minutes

Cast

Isaiah Russell-Bailey as Caleb Channing

Mckenna Grace as Addison

Billy Barratt as Dylan

Orson Hong as Borney

Thomas Boyce as Marcus

Kid Cudi as Michael

Selenis Leyva as Maria

Hero Hunter as Young Caleb

Carson Minniear as Charlie

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

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