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‘Crater’ revolves around themes of friendship, striving for a better future

My memory isn’t quite what it used to be, but I believe I was in my sophomore year at Seminole High School when introduced to the work of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. It wasn’t merely the recommendation of a friend: It was assigned reading in language arts class, courtesy of one of my favorite teachers, Cynthia Braunstein. 

Before setting foot in her classroom for the first time, I had been warned that Braunstein could be intimidating — and the stories were true, for those who had not developed a fondness for reading. She challenged students to explore new horizons in literature, and she actively promoted speculative fiction genres, including sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. 

She also made every student memorize William Ernest Henley’s short poem “Invictus” and recite it in front of their peers. 

Braunstein handed out copies of Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth,” a collection of short stories published in 1951. The individual stories appeared even earlier in various pulp magazines and periodicals, with the earliest tales dating back to 1941. Heinlein is now considered a pioneer in the subgenre of hard science fiction, which emphasizes scientific accuracy and logic. Themes found in his work sometimes seem contradictory, with individual stories addressing everything from radical individualism and militarism to sexual liberation and the social contract that binds us together as a society.

In works such as the novella “If This Goes On—,” Heinlein explores how technological progress shapes politics and culture, and it examines the influence of organized religion on government. He issued a prescient warning in introducing the character of Nehemiah Scudder, a fanatic preacher who, after being elected president of the United States, puts the country on course to becoming a theocracy. 

Thank goodness there aren’t individuals today who embrace Christian nationalism and anti-democratic mindsets, and who — much like Southern leaders during the Jim Crow era — rely on theological arguments to limit marginalized individuals from gaining access to polling stations and voting booths.

I’m not sure I picked up on all of Heinlein’s themes in 10th grade, to be honest. But the stories found in “The Green Hills of Earth” certainly made an impression.

“Crater,” a new coming-of-age science fiction adventure film, feels like an homage to Heinlein. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by John Griffin, the film was released May 12 on Disney+.

“Crater” is described as a coming-of-age adventure story. It revolves around Caleb Channing (Isaiah Russell-Bailey), a teenager who was raised on a lunar mining colony. Miners sign up for a 20-year stretch, after which they are granted passage to an idyllic colony on Omega, a distant, paradise planet. Unfortunately, the contract is filled with loopholes, allowing the company to take advantage of its laborers by extending their stay — and, in some instances, saddling their adult children with unfinished quotas. The promise of fulfilling their commitment and earning transit to Omega becomes a near impossible dream, and the company exploits generations of indentured servants.  

One contract stipulation works in favor of younger children living on the moon.

The story begins shortly after the death of Caleb’s father. His mother also is deceased. Because Caleb is not yet 18, the company will send him on the 75-year journey to the Omega colony. Colonists are put in statis for the voyage and do not age during the trip.

Before his departure, Caleb is intent upon exploring a distant, mysterious crater, far from the safety of the domed facility where the miners and their families live. It is a vow he made to his father. He and his three best friends, Dylan (Billy Barratt), Borney (Orson Hong) and Marcus (Thomas Boyce) — along with a new arrival from Earth, Addison (Mckenna Grace) — hijack a rover for one last adventure on a journey to explore a mysterious crater.

The story is less about what they find at the crater than what they learn about each other — and themselves — along the way.

“Crater” follows common Disney tropes, from a lead character whose parents have died to manipulative sequences designed to evoke sympathy. Too much of the story depends upon unbelievable acts, such as the ease with which the kids manage to appropriate the lunar vehicle and sneak out of the base. Their ability to pilot the rover and navigate the moon’s landscape is equally incredible, given that none of them have ever actually visited the surface. 

If one can overlook plot holes and questionable science and a script that repeatedly insists upon saccharine sentimentality, “Crater” excels in its depiction of the importance of building and maintaining friendships, of stepping outside one’s comfort zone, and of being able to see beyond one’s own point of view and personal needs. The young and talented cast members convey the rapport that develops among the members of this group of outcasts. They also reveal much about how these characters cope with the knowledge that they have been thrust into a social order that will seek to limit their aspirations and cap their potential. 

It's in this regard that “Crater” recalls Heinlein, and his tales that envisage a future in which slave labor develops among planetary outposts. The world of “Crater” is no utopia. It is one in which a small, wealthy, ruling class apparently depends upon the indentured lower classes to provide fuel and resources that enable them to journey to Omega. 

“We’re not telling a story of a perfect utopian futuristic world,” Alvarez says in the film’s production notes. “We’re telling the story of something that was aspiring to be that before it got left behind. It was really important to me, especially making a film for a younger audience, that it feels like it’s within reach, that it’s

the future, but also not that different from where we are right now.”

“Crater” is more thorough in its storytelling than its world-building — and that’s OK, considering the teenage target audience. Heartfelt and insightful at times, the film provides a good balance of well-developed, approachable characters and low-key suspense.

Even though there are moments of peril and uncertainty, it’s difficult to imagine the outcome could be anything terribly tragic. The conclusion underscores the film’s philosophical points, gently encouraging viewers to reflect upon their personal aspirations and how society may help or hinder them from reaching those goals. 

Braunstein was one of a handful of teachers who encouraged me to write — and to make writing a career goal. I never had the opportunity to thank her. She died in 2011. I imagine she was not a fan of Disney’s sanitized retellings of classic fairy tales, but I think she may have found something worthwhile in “Crater.”

If nothing else, it reminds viewers of the importance of friendship in a world that is increasingly socially isolated, stressed, and depressed. It also invites viewers to reflect upon their own expectations of the future.