“They just don’t make ’em like they used to” is a common complaint about movies, TV, and everything in between. So many people harbor a specific fondness for what they watched growing up that chasing nostalgia with endless reboots, remakes, and legacy sequels has become a genre of its own. And new releases that aren’t directly tied to an old, beloved franchise are just as likely to be projects like Stranger Things, which echoes an entire subgenre of 1980s media and uses that setting as a selling point.
But Disney Plus’ Crater does something that’s fairly rare: It has all the hijinks, heart, and even the formula of an ’80s kids adventure like The Goonies or Stand By Me, where a big escapade fuels a coming-of-age story. But the added complexity of its sci-fi setting allows director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer John Griffin to dive into some more poignant overarching themes. It’s familiar, without being cliche or tied to any existing media. At the same time, it’s innovative, in a way that celebrates its familiar genre tropes, instead of snarking at them.
Set in the distant future, Crater takes place on a lunar mining colony. Teenage protagonist Caleb (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) has just been orphaned after his father (Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi) dies in a mining accident. With both parents dead and Caleb too young to work in the mines himself, he lacks any form of support, but a clause in his parents’ contracts says he’ll be provided for on the paradise world of Omega — a journey that involves being put in cryo sleep for 75 years and leaving his best friends behind. With the shuttle to Omega leaving in just a couple of days, Caleb and his friends decide to have one last adventure, hijacking a lunar rover to visit a distant crater on the moon’s surface — a location Caleb’s father insisted that he see someday.
The DNA Crater shares with ’80s kidventure flicks is apparent from the get-go. The most obvious element is the cast, which checks off all the expected archetype boxes. Caleb is the main character, but he’s more thoughtful and introverted than his best friend Dylan (Billy Barratt), the group’s confident leader. There’s Borney (Orson Hong), the studious worrywart who frets over Marcus (Thomas Boyce), the gentle giant who needs special medication because of his overly large heart. (A condition, the characters tell us, that happens to people who’ve only ever lived on the moon.)
Rounding out the group is the designated token girl character, Addison (Mckenna Grace), freshly moved to the moon from Earth, and thus seen as somewhat of a spoiled brat and a stick in the mud. But surprise! She proves she’s just as ready for adventure as the group of boys.
All of this could feel like a vast cliche, especially because the kids never subvert their molds. But they capture their archetypes fully and perfectly, bringing nuance and depth to what could be one-note characters. They end up grounding the story, making this moon-based-future adventure feel familiar and relatable.
If there’s one thing Alvarez doesn’t quite nail, it’s transitioning smoothly between flashbacks and the present day — the movie kicks off with an awkward flashback to just a couple of hours before the present, then flashbacks within that flashback. But because the actors do such a brilliant job in each scene, it’s easy to forgive the clunkier transitions. Barratt fantastically captures the quintessential Leader of the Pack character, the charming one with the plan who devotedly loves his best friends and keeps a positive attitude in spite of his hardships in the past.
Alvarez integrates heavier science fiction themes into this familiar coming-of-age adventure story. In this case, it’s not just the concept of Caleb possibly going into cryo sleep and waking up 75 years away from everything he’s ever known — it’s also the idea that for every glorious and golden space haven, there are people left behind, scraping by and clinging to their unattainable dreams, like the lower-class characters in dystopian stories like Elysium, Alita: Battle Angel, and Snowpiercer. The movie doesn’t flinch from the realities of life on the lunar mining station, and Alvarez seamlessly weaves the ramifications of corrupt futuristic capitalism into the characters themselves. This isn’t a movie where the kid stars break into a space station to save everyone on the moon; it’s just five kids on one last adventure together. But the setting is so integral to who they are that it also becomes a greater look at worker exploitation and how it ripples down through generations.
Coming-of-age stories like Crater often do grapple with themes of class and equality, but Crater again does something rare by capturing the issues so common in a specific type of movie and updating them in a seamless and refreshing way — without being cynical about it in a way that modern updates tend to do. It represents the perfect combination of the two genres and shows how similar they are, as they often grapple with idealism versus reality and protagonists facing the unknown. Coming-of-age stories are, after all, very often about loss — loss of innocence, loss of childhood, loss of golden days gone by. Similarly, many reflective sci-fi works look ahead at the possibilities of the future, while also ruminating on what humanity might’ve lost along the way. Griffin’s script blends the two in such a synergistic way, giving viewers a chance to really appreciate what makes each genre shine and how well they work when they come together.
Crater is out on Disney Plus now.