'Crater' is an old-fashioned kids' sci-fi flick with out-of-this-world charm (review)

four people in space suits put their arms on one another's shoulders on the surface of the moon while looking down into a large crater
"Crater" began streaming on Disney+ on May 12. (Image credit: Disney+)

NASA's Artemis program is stirring up renewed interest in lunar exploration, and retro-style coming-of-age flicks from Hollywood are proving to be very popular with audiences and viewers.

So Disney Plus has decided to merge those two elements for its new kid-friendly sci-fi film, "Crater."

Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez ("C.O.G."), "Crater" unfolds its gripping tale of five adventurous kids in the year 2257 living at a protected mining colony on the surface of the moon who steal a research rover and embark on a wild overland romp to explore a notorious crater. It stars Russell-Bailey, Scott Mescudi, McKenna Grace, Billy Barratt, Orson Hong, and Thomas Boyce.

"Crater" touched down on Disney+ on May 12, 2023 with an impressive creative resume that includes executive producers Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum," "Real Steel"), Dan Cohen and Dan Levine, the creative minds that brought us Netflix's "Stranger Things" and "Arrival."

With dire dystopian dramas and depressing superhero sagas still flooding the marketplace, it's refreshing to find a movie that seeks to entertain and gently instruct without some heavy, ham-handed message to preach to fans who simply want to enjoy a rewarding outer space diversion.

"Crater's" familiar formula harkens back to classics like "Stand By Me," "Flight of the Navigator," "E.T the Extra-terrestrial," "Explorers" or "The Goonies." There's lots to like here as we meet this energetic band of lunar delinquents. We do have to endure some brief eye-rolling lessons about classism and capitalism that are unavoidable these days, but that doesn't detract from a rollicking road trip on the moon.

Read more: The best sci-fi movies and TV shows to stream on Disney Plus in May

Promotional poster for "Crater." (Image credit: Disney+)

Here's the official synopsis:

"'Crater' is the story of Caleb Channing (Russell-Bailey), who was raised on a lunar mining colony and is about to be permanently relocated to an idyllic faraway planet following the death of his father (Mescudi). But before leaving, to fulfill his dad's last wish, he and his three best friends, Dylan (Barratt), Borney (Hong) and Marcus (Boyce), and a new arrival from Earth, Addison (Grace), hijack a rover for a final adventure on a journey to explore a mysterious crater."

John Griffin’s ("From") organic original screenplay wastes no time hitting the narrative afterburners as the mining facility goes into lockdown mode due to an encroaching meteor storm. After Caleb's dad dies in a mining accident, the orphaned teen's death benefits allow him to relocate to the idyllic exoplanet Omega. However, the journey takes 75 years to complete, and Caleb's cryo-chamber would spare him the ravages of time, but his friends would age naturally back home at the colony.

Related: Mining the moon to help save life on Earth (op-ed)

The lunar rover in "Crater" on a dangerous trek. (Image credit: Disney+)

Using the lockdown orders and a three-day window before his Omega trip, Caleb gathers his buddies and steals a huge rover to go off-roading out to the location of a special crater Caleb's father mentioned. Addison, a newbie Earth girl, has the codes the kids need for the caper, and she barters her way into their crew to rumble across the lunar regolith to go see a colossal hole.

The cast has palpable chemistry, and these young actors do an admirable job with the material, delivering authentic and sincere dialogue in every scene and sequence.

The throwback appeal, core mystery, and rousing spirit of "Crater" make this type of science fiction feature something Disney should invest much more time and effort in. Sure, the "Star Wars" franchise and Marvel Cinematic Universe are their flagship properties, but it's encouraging to see fresh fare like "Crater" make its mark, as family entertainment often gets neglected in favor of the superstars.

"Crater" has an impressive cast of young actors. (Image credit: Disney+)

Nora T. Ekberg's glossy production design for "Crater" is exceptional, and, paired with fantastic VFX work by production visual effects supervisor Carey Villegas and contributions from Cinesite, FuseFX, MPC, and MR. X, gives Disney+’s spacey offering an added level of prestige.

The final discovery of what's inside the titular crater provides a wondrous revelation that neatly wraps up the whole endeavor without a hint of disappointment.

It's all surprisingly satisfying with "Crater's" subtle themes of death and loss, unrealized dreams, unfair labor practices and the warm companionship of friends on a memorable road trip. "Crater" is thankfully devoid of modern cynicism, and a relaxed viewing is the ideal way to spend a fun weekend afternoon. 

"Crater" is currently streaming exclusively on Disney Plus.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.