Any documentary with a score as lush and uplifting as the one that Blake Neely composed for “Good Night Oppy” has gotta be a glorified commercial for something, but at least Ryan White’s nice and glossy film about NASA’s two most famous Mars rovers is upfront about what it’s selling: The magic of science.
Family-friendly STEM propaganda that never feels like it was only (or even especially) made for kids, “Good Night Oppy” follows its WALL-E-like stars from their launch in 2003 all the way through their respective lifecycles on the Red Planet, which were only supposed to be 90 sols long (that’s Martian for “day”), but — in the nerd equivalent of a Hanukkah miracle — lasted for several years before the robots finally quiet quit as the people who made them watched from the sidelines some 300 million miles away. I never realized the search for water on an alien hellscape could be so darn touching.
If nothing else, “Good Night Oppy” ensures that no one will make that mistake again. Between Angela Bassett’s effusive narration, talking head testimonies from NASA scientists who liken the rovers to their loved ones, and a handful of all too relatable messages from the robots themselves — “My battery is low and it’s getting dark,” one of them writes towards the end — White’s film is determined to forge the same kind of emotional connection with its metal bots that “E.T.” did with its shriveled title character (Amazon produced this project in partnership with Amblin Entertainment).
Sometimes too determined. While depicting a landmark moment in humanity’s efforts to understand our place in the universe, “Good Night Oppy” renders the rovers’ journeys with such oppressive sentimentality terms that it can be hard to feel the full weight of the awe and wonder the movie drops into your lap. As a result, White’s doc ultimately works best as a clinical example of the role that emotion can play in scientific progress; I didn’t feel much of anything besides White hovering over my shoulder and shouting at me to cry, but his film makes it easy to appreciate why a degree of anthropomorphic feeling has always been so crucial to our pursuit of cold knowledge. No matter what tools we create to explore the solar system for us, we’ll always be looking at the stars through our own two eyes.
To that end, “Good Night Oppy” depicts Mars not exactly as the rovers saw it, but rather as our imaginations might upscale the footage they sent back. It’s an obvious distinction the film declines to spell out, as there’s no explicit indication that the Red Planet’s vivid red landscapes — and indeed, the rovers themselves — are actually photorealistic CGI creations created by the effects wizards at ILM. It’s easy to forget that we don’t have access to such astonishing footage from alien worlds; it’s only when White depicts the rovers landing on Mars through a series of riveting but impossible shots that viewers have to completely disabuse themselves of any pretense of reality.
Archival footage and talking head interviews notwithstanding, this movie was made on computers. Computers that were intended to split the difference between NASA and Pixar, and use our empathetic imaginations to bridge the gap between humans on Earth and robots on another world. Spirit and Opportunity even make cute little sound effects as they wheel around the space desert, which — like the noises they create as they hurl through the cosmos — appear to be inventions of White’s movie.
Then again, one of the rovers really did get scared of its own shadow, which caused it to malfunction for a while. And it’s not as if the engineers at NASA didn’t try to make the rovers as adorable (or at least as relatable) as they could. While the robots fall short of WALL-E’s charm — they never rock themselves to sleep or wistfully watch an old VHS tape of “Hello, Dolly!” — their articulating arms, eye-like cameras, and toddling gait make them human enough.
Childlike, even. Spirit and Opportunity may have been designed to see Mars from the height of an average adult woman, but the people who worked on them seem to have thought of the robots more like twin daughters they raised on Earth before sending them on a one-way trip (very far) out of the fest. If the point is belabored early and often, it rings true all the same; what better metaphor could there be for parenthood than spending 16 years of your life preparing something for a future you can’t possibly imagine?
Opportunity is the perfect child, while Spirit is compared to a teenager who refuses to stop playing video games; the relief and elation we see from the NASA scientists when the rovers successfully touch down on Mars is that of 100 parents watching their burnout kids defy the odds and fulfill their potential. In this case, that potential is further realized by the rovers’ discovery of hematite, a mineral that often forms in the presence of water. The relationship between the robots and the people who made them only deepens as the machines greatly exceed their expectations and move onto accomplishing NASA’s stretch goals, with Oppy surviving for so long that her (her!) mission starts to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy: She is life on Mars.
That might be easier to appreciate if White didn’t lay everything on so thick, to the point that even the most touching asides — such as the NASA employee whose own grandmother began to experience dementia around the same time as little Oppy began growing forgetful and arthritic due to the dust accumulating between its cables — are dulled by how prompted they feel. The result is a film so reverse-engineered from the reaction it wants to provoke that the reaction itself becomes more compelling than what’s inspiring it.
Would the world have cared about these rovers if not for how much we saw ourselves in them (there was even a public contest to name them)? Would NASA have inspired the brightest minds of today and tomorrow to devote themselves to the cause if not for how Spirit and Opportunity sparked the imagination? Would the rovers have survived for as long as they did if they didn’t feel the love of the people driving them back on Earth? “Good Night Oppy” may not inspire the same feelings in everyone who watches it, but it convincingly makes the case that we need to feel them if we ever hope to see what’s over the next horizon.
“Good Night Oppy” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival before playing at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it in select theaters on Friday, November 4, and streaming on Prime Video on Wednesday, November 23.