Ryan White explores the remarkable story of the twin Mars rovers in this gentle documentary

Good Night Oppy

Source: Courtesy of TIFF

‘Good Night Oppy’

Dir: Ryan White. US. 2021.105mins

Telling the remarkable story of the twin Mars rovers that ventured across the Red Planet starting in 2004, Good Night Oppy is perhaps too aggressively feel-good in its approach, and yet it’s hard to resist what’s stirring about this tale of space exploration. Documentarian Ryan White (The Case Against 8Ask Dr. Ruth) speaks to scientists, engineers, drivers and project managers, who provide a lively oral history of a mission that lasted 15 years — not bad considering the team assumed the rovers would be inoperable within about 90 days. Sometimes little more than an advertisement for America’s NASA program the film may not be especially probing, but anyone awed by humanity’s ingenuity and technology’s potential to enrich our lives may end up with stars in their eyes.

Despite the film’s slightness and unexplored themes, White caters to our shared wonder about the solar system

Good Night Oppy premieres at Telluride before screening in Toronto, enjoying a US theatrical release November 4. (The film then begins streaming on Amazon on November 23.) Featuring extensive effects work from Industrial Light & Magic, which re-creates the rovers’ improbable Martian expedition, the documentary offers a breezy overview of this ambitious interstellar undertaking, making this ideal viewing for budding astronomers and armchair adventurers.  

In the early 2000s, NASA devoted its energies to launching two rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, to Mars, hoping that they would send back definitive proof that the planet could have once sustained life. The documentary’s assorted talking heads take us from the early planning phases all the way to the twin robots’ final days, recounting the highs and lows of an operation that proved more successful — and more emotional — than they could have possibly imagined. 

Backed by Blake Neely’s demonstrative score, White sets out to tell a human-interest story about these rovers, which from the start were thought of as “real” by their NASA overseers. Myriad scientists and engineers talk about Spirit and Opportunity like proud parents — they’re both referred to as “she” — and get weepy reflecting on having to say goodbye. And because the rovers far exceeded their initial life expectancy, the mission managers decided to see just how much data the rovers could collect; knowing full well that such an opportunity might not happen again.

Although some of the interview subjects stand out — especially principal scientist Steve Squyres, who has a sharp intellect and a soft heart — Good Night Oppy is very much about how these women and men collectively felt about spending years worrying about two robots millions of miles away. Although White tends to oversell the drama and plot twists, the documentary is buoyed by an undeniable reality: these people were deeply invested in Spirit and Opportunity’s safety, fretting over the machines’ malfunctions as if they were human ailments. (An ageing rover suffers “arthritis,” while a robot’s damaged memory system is compared by one of White’s subjects to her own grandmother’s bout with Alzheimer’s.) Playing rousing wakeup music every morning — maybe it’s ‘Here Comes The Sun,’ or ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ — NASA’s command centre recognised they were operating on burrowed time with these machines, wanting to make each day precious.

The documentary’s attempts to give Spirit and Opportunity personalities is only partly successful. Blurting out the kinds of beeps and bloops filmgoers may associate with Wall-E, the robots are seen traversing Mars’ hostile terrain through vivid computer effects. Angela Bassett narrates the diary entries chronicling the rovers’ progress, while White draws from archival footage shot by NASA over the course of Spirit and Opportunity’s adventures, which observes the agency’s braintrust start to get older as the years go by. As much as the interview subjects think of these robots as flesh-and-blood friends, the fragility of life is felt more acutely on the humans’ faces and nostalgic reminiscences. Poignantly, as the mission stretches beyond a decade, a new generation of scientists and engineers take over the reins; the passing of the torch a bittersweet inevitability.

Good Night Oppy’s resolutely upbeat tone and cutesy digressions can occasionally be too much to take. And there’s very little sense of the egos and interpersonal conflicts that would occur in such a high-stress work environment, the sort of compelling details that might have given this story more complexity and intrigue. (We’re told briefly that the future of NASA hinged on the mission’s success, although the claim is given almost no weight.) But despite the film’s slightness and unexplored themes, White caters to our shared wonder about the solar system and our penchant to seek connection — even if it’s with our robot rovers. Those basic human drives are potent enough to make this trip worthwhile. 

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Film 45, Tripod Media

Worldwide distribution: Amazon Studios

Producers: Ryan White, Jessica Hargrave, Brandon Carroll, Matthew Goldberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank

Screenplay: Ryan White, Helen Kearns

Cinematography: David Paul Jacobson

Editing: Helen Kearns, Rejh Cabrera   

Music: Blake Neely