Disney+’s rampantly grim new movie doesn’t offer much that viewers couldn’t find in dozens of other sci-fi dramas.
Crater begins centuries into the future in an era where man has colonized the Moon. Rather than being home to thriving cities, though, Earth’s only natural satellite is the site of a run-down mining colony. People toil away, hoping to make it to another luxurious planet known as Omega. This is where Caleb Channing (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) lives. It’s also where he receives the news that his miner father (Scott Mescudi) has died. As part of his death benefits, Caleb will be transferred, via 75 years of traveling, to the bustling world of Omega.
The thought of leaving behind friends Dylan (Billy Barratt), Borney (Orson Hong), and Marcus (Thomas Boyce) fills Caleb with despair, but he has no choice. Besides, it is only supposed to be a few days. Before he leaves, though, he decides to fulfill some unresolved business from his father involving a crater far beyond the perimeter of the mining colony. Getting there will require a grand adventure, a stolen rover, and the aid of Earth-native newcomer Addison (Mckenna Grace).
There’s not much about Crater that’s especially memorable, save for its unexpectedly dour tone. The four adolescent protagonists of this movie inhabit a world where parents are largely dead or absent, upward social mobility is nonexistent, and unfinished construction projects function as eternal reminders of unfulfilled promises from corporations. Though they live on the Moon, these characters deal with hardships all too familiar to Earthlings.
It’s arresting to see a feature aimed at kids like Crater grapple with such dark corners of reality. This is doubly true, considering this is a Disney children’s film. Typically, the only darkness they’re showcasing is unspeakably dim cinematography. In its best moments, Crater wrings some interesting bits of pathos out of the all-consuming woe. For one, the youngsters seem surprisingly mortality-obsessed. Note, for instance, Borney’s fixation with making sure Marcus takes his heart medication. With no one looking out for these kids, they must take extra active measures to ensure their mutual survival.
In its best moments, Crater wrings some interesting bits of pathos out of the all-consuming woe.
Unfortunately, while unique, the darker storytelling elements fail to electrify. Instead, they mostly result in a certain listlessness. The requirements to fit inside the box of a standard Disney movie means audiences are told rather than explicitly shown the ruinous world of Crater. Rendering such despair in overt visual terms would’ve undoubtedly pushed the proceedings into PG-13 territory. Still, it also would’ve made the intended anguish feel palpable. Instead, the world feels mopey and shallow rather than tragic and lived in.
Further hindering John Griffin’s screenplay for Crater is the tremendous amount of tragic backstory. With so much pent-up pain and emotional damage to go around, the various sob stories quickly blur together. As a result, Caleb and his chums don’t feel like people. Rather, they come off as vessels for generic melodramatic dialogue.
Compounding Crater’s narrative issues is filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s strangely aloof directing. Making his first foray into overtly family-friendly entertainment, after previously directed indie movies like The Stanford Prison Experiment, Alvarez seems uncomfortable. In particular, one can feel him strain against coming across as “silly.” There’s a rigidity to Crater’s visual sensibilities that keeps viewers at a distance in moments of poignancy or exciting triumph.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene where Caleb and pals wreck a model home in an act of defiance against lying corporations. It should be a moment of euphoria rooted in finally having control of their lives, however briefly. Instead, Alvarez’s camera feels strangely detached from the anarchy. There’s no excitement or enthusiasm in how he frames the exploding chaos, so why should viewers feel those emotions? What could’ve been a memorable sequence of buoyant rebellion arrives stifled and stale on-screen.
That half-hearted approach is, unfortunately, quite apparent throughout Crater. Save for the glimpses of darkness lurking around the margins of its narrative, it’s predominantly derivative and tedious. Alvarez and company try so hard throughout this movie to play things seriously and tug at the heartstrings. Alas, gloomy faces aren’t enough to make one invested or enthralled in the proceedings. When the best thing you can say about Crater is that it’s at least better than The Space Between Us, you know something has gone awry.
Crater is currently taking viewers to Omega on Disney+.