Sweetly conceived, Ryan White’s documentary Good Night Oppy is a loving ode to the personification of technology. It might not tread any new ground, but the film can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
Two robotic exploration rovers named Opportunity and Spirit are launched by NASA in 2004. As chronicled by the mission designers, engineers, flight crew, and NASA personnel, Spirit and Opportunity were meant to spend only 90 sols (one day on Mars). Utilizing archival footage from NASA and computer recreations of each rover’s mission on the planet, the humans learn to love the rovers more than just as machines.
The achievements of NASA are extensive, but more than anything, Good Night Oppy shows the sheer amount of effort and coordination their projects take to achieve. Every circuit, gear, lens, and screw is tested and re-tested over a period of months in order to make a launch date. This involves long hours of hard work by hundreds of people.
More than anything, these engineers and scientists’ hard work is put on a razor’s edge when the mission begins. All this planning and time turns into a waiting game. Anytime a meteor hits the ships carrying the rovers, there’s a wave of anxiety that hits mission control. When each ship lands, nervous energy fills the room. Is all that time and effort going to go to waste when it’s this close?
Once word reaches down of the successful landings, it turns into a mountain of dorky jubilation. Tears are shed, and hugs are shared. The most engrossing aspect was these different personalities laid bare. Some of the sharpest engineering minds are in that room, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to suave charisma. It’s a bunch of geeks. And when they celebrate their achievements, they respond with the silly jubilation rarely seen in real life.
The true stars of the film are the rovers themselves. It’s a manipulative trick to have CGI representations of the rovers, but it’s the only way to make the film more dynamic. Otherwise, it would have only been sparse talking head interviews and NASA archival footage. Each rover has its own unique personality, with Opportunity being the more level-headed star. Spirit is relegated to the little brother but still has its own storyline. The personification of these rovers gives the audience a rooting interest in what is happening on Mars.
The rovers’ tenacity is the main attraction. Originally designed for 90 sols, both outlast their mission dates and continue providing vital surface data for the people back at NASA. It gets a bit hokey near the end when each person talks about how enthralled the world was with their story, but no one is putting on a show. They believe that the world is transfixed on these rovers, and that commitment is important.
Angela Bassett provides the voiceover for the rover diary entries, which grants a steady calm over highly scientific mechanisms. Just as the visuals of the rovers were obviously not real, it makes the diary entries equally suspect. At the end of the day, this is a movie meant to entertain. Regardless of the manipulation or devices, it gets the job done very well.
Good Night Oppy will almost certainly leave you with a smile on your face, and maybe even a tear in your eye. It’s a testament to human achievement and scientific exploration. Essentially, it’s like a live-action WALL-E.
Good Night Oppy premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 3, 2022 and had a limited release in US theaters starting on November 4. The documentary starts streaming on Prime Video on November 23, 2022.
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