Big true stories about space exploration don’t come around very often anymore. Our pop culture portrayals of NASA’s accomplishments (or failures) tend to be historical plays and greatest hits retreads. But the new documentary Good Night Oppy, directed by Ryan White, is an exciting and fresh story about a recent mission to Mars that has exceeded all expectations thanks to hard work, ingenuity, good luck and even more dogged perseverance.
Produced by Amazon Studios, Amblin Entertainment and Industrial Light and Magic, among others, Good Night Oppy is a documentary film that aims to capture a sense of childlike wonder and wide-ranging, imaginative scope similar to the films Amblin and ILM are producing are known . The amazing story of the Mars Exploration Rover mission manages to feel like ET emotionally and look like Star Wars.
The Mars rovers were the brainchild of geologist and astronomer Steve Squyres, who was tired of exploring the farthest reaches of Earth and dreamed of exploring Mars, imagining that a robotic rover would take its place on the red planet could travel. After years of propositions, NASA finally gave its OK to develop twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003 to look for evidence of water — evidence of life — on Mars.
The mission was intended to last 90 days (or Martian “brines”), but miraculously lasted 16 years thanks to unexpected good fortune when the rovers reached the planet. White and co-author Helen Kearns tell the story through well-curated and edited archival footage and interviews with a diverse and dedicated group of NASA scientists and engineers who have dedicated nearly two decades of their lives to the voyage of these rovers.
In each interview with the people who dreamed up, built and guided the rovers along their journey, White and Kearns are careful to foreground the human stories about their childhood and family, their sparks of inspiration. The jargon never gets too technical, and the scientists and engineers are more than happy to humanize the rovers, which they speak of with great affection, often comparing the rovers to their children or identifying closely with them. Spirit is “Tough and Rough” while Opportunity is “Little Miss Perfect.” The affection and care that humans have for the robots is clearly part of the secret ingredient that has made this mission so successful.
When Spirit and Opportunity landed, both set out to collect and analyze samples, photograph the landscape of Mars, and explore the planet like curious tourists. Carefully navigated by the humans (or “earthlings,” as they call themselves) residing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Spirit and Oppy weathered dust storms and winter freezes, encountering incredible luck and frustrating blockages along the way.
Among the most effective tools in White’s storytelling arsenal are the “Wake-up” songs, which the team at JPL plays for the rovers and for their teammates, working on a brutal schedule to keep the rovers moving. The soundtrack is littered with everything from bops (“Walkin’ on Sunshine”) to mood-lifting or heart-touching ballads (ABBA’s “SOS”).
As a filmmaker, White subsumes his own point of view, and the film never takes a critical or opposing stance towards its subject. At times it feels like a commercial or a recruitment video, helping to demonstrate NASA’s function in this modern era while also telling the unlikely astronomical success of this mission. A lot of filmmaking focuses on making this story accessible and interesting for a wide audience, especially children, and a story about the generations of students who watched the launch and later worked on the mission is a subtle way to do it attracting future aerospace scientists and engineers to the fold.
Despite the slightly boring nature of the storytelling – it’s not like this documentary pushes the boundaries of form – it’s an incredible true story told with care and skill. It would be shocking not to shed a tear or two at the sheer triumph of it all, the result of Herculean human effort, teamwork and two cute little robots.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.
‘Good night Oppy’
Rated: PG, for mild language
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
To play: Begins November 4, Regal LA Live, Downtown Los Angeles; New Port Theater, Corona del Mar; Available November 23 on Amazon Prime Video
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-02/review-good-night-oppy-documentary-mars-rover-nasa ‘Good Night Oppy’ review: NASA’s Mars rovers are the real stars