Amazon’s Good Night Oppy is likely to be sold to audiences on the strength of its adorably anthropomorphic robotic protagonist and ambitious surface-of-Mars special effects from the wizards at ILM. But the appeal of Ryan White’s endearing and emotional documentary is much more grounded.
Good Night Oppy is a lively celebration of unabashed nerdiness and enthusiastic problem-solving, the sort of movie that feels designed to attract Wall-E-loving children, who can then be shaped into the engineers and astrophysicists of the future. It’s a glossy advertisement for NASA and JPL — I thought of Disney+’s recent ILM documentary/commercial Light & Magic more than a few times while watching — but it comes by its waves of emotion honestly.
Good Night Oppy
The Bottom Line
A love letter to geeky problem-solving.
In 2003, two robotic rovers were sent to Mars on separate missions to collect data about the Red Planet’s topography and, hopefully, its history with water. Named “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” the two rovers faced the pressure of reversing a run of recent Mars failures for NASA and, ideally, both were expected to be operational for only 90 Martian days. Instead, Spirit kept traveling and reporting back until 2010, while Opportunity persisted in slow-moving Martian solitude until 2018. Good Night Oppy is the story of those two rovers and the team that watched in amazement as their machines took on human characteristics and became imbued with the hopes and dreams of two generations of invested experts.
The plan is to give Good Night Oppy a theatrical run before it settles into its long-term home on Prime Video, and there’s no doubt that some of the computer-assisted visuals will be enhanced on the big screen. ILM has, presumably using or inspired by the imagery and data collected by Spirit and Opportunity, crafted billowing red clouds, swirling dust devils and endless Martian expanses. Boosted by Blake Neely’s wonder-evoking score and Mark Mangini’s otherworldly sound design, it’s unquestionably beautiful, but I wouldn’t call it a dramatic leap forward from the way Mars has been depicted in features like The Martian or the most recent season of For All Mankind. Spirit and Opportunity gave us a new visual language for understanding Mars. Good Night Oppy just gives us a little high-tech pizzazz and helps the audience build, in 100-minute micro, our own version of the epic connection felt by the professionals.
“To say it’s like a child being born would be to trivialize parenthood, but it feels sorta like that,” says mission manager Steve Squyres of the initial launches for the two rovers. It’s a necessary sentiment/disclaimer to get out of the way early, because… Duh. But also, because the next hour-plus is composed of almost non-stop comparisons between Spirit and Opportunity and children, enabled by the eye-like cameras, the arm-like appendages and the decision to give the rovers a height of five-foot-two, the same height as an average human woman. (All comparisons between Opportunity and previous Ryan White documentary subject Dr. Ruth feel valid.)
They were built to be anthropomorphized and there are moments at which either White or his human subjects feel like they’re straining with the parent-child analogy. Those moments, though, are inevitably followed by serendipitous connections that you’d have to be heartless not to feel, like the story of rover driver Vandi Verma, who had her own twins almost in tandem with the release of Spirit and Opportunity, or the choked-up memories of the young flight director whose grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s exactly as Opportunity began to experience terminal memory loss. Sniffle.
One of the best things a documentary, particularly one as jammed with specialized jargon as this one, can do to make you care — in lieu of being able to fully unpack its advanced topic — is successfully convey the enthusiasm of its main subjects. Here, we meet over a dozen principal experts, from the highest reaches and earliest stages of the project to fresh-faced enthusiasts just giddy to be able to work with Spirit and Opportunity after having experienced their initial arrival on Mars as kids. Their stories are funny, interesting and, if I were still young enough to change careers or capable of doing math, would make me want to fill out a JPL application.
The interviews are good and the effects are spiffy, but White’s greatest asset is footage from different rover mission control and meeting rooms over two decades. Almost on a crisis-by-crisis basis, Good Night Oppy takes us through various catastrophes experienced by Spirit and Opportunity — impending sandstorms, dust-clogged sensors, inoperable machinery — and breaks down the stages of the process that allowed them to overcome each bout with adversity. Even if you’re constantly aware that every solution was arrived at with more complications and erudition than we’re seeing, White gives a thorough enough taste of the brainstorming, modeling and trouble-shooting for us to be completely inspired by it — especially when the major breakthroughs are accompanied by the sometimes cheeky, sometimes potent “wakeup songs” that become a morning ritual for the rover team.
It isn’t surprising that a story about a lonely robot with big “eyes” and a manufactured voice — Angela Bassett’s voiceover presence here is total overkill — would make me a touch weepy. I’ve seen Wall-E, oddly unmentioned here, and Short Circuit, amusingly mentioned here. That Good Night Oppy achieves that goal and makes me yearn for a career doing equations for fancy computers on another planet? That’s impressive.