Early in Good Night, Oppy, one of its subjects suggests NASA’s financial future was pinned on the mission chronicled in this documentary — one mounted in the early 2000s to send two autonomous, solar-powered rovers onto the surface of Mars. But no wonks from the Office of Management and Budget show up to debate that idea. Aside from other failed Mars efforts, there is little social context for why that could be the case. It’s just speculation of a voice on the team manning the mission, a team that doesn’t lose its nerve and is always still on the payroll.
Indeed, the biggest drama here is how long Spirit and Opportunity, the names given to the rovers, would last past their 90-day guarantee. That is the amount of time for which the robots were rated to effectively operate on a mission to gather geological intel about the past presence of water on Mars. Making home movies for the folks back home, Spirit and Oppportunity’s data could help determine what might have happened to any water there, why it disappeared and perhaps how Earth could forestall that same fate for its own celestial hydration.
Oppy is a nickname the NASA mission team gives to the rover that … well, lasted a lot longer up there than Mark Watney in The Martian. Director Ryan White’s documentary largely plays much like a cross of Watney and WALL-E. Although there are interstellar bursts, these robots aren’t back to save the universe. Instead, the rovers’ historic journeys across Mars are rendered through narration of their “diaries” by Angela Bassett and persuasive visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic (a co-producer on the documentary along with Amblin Entertainment).
Mounted in 24 months to meet a narrow launch window, this mission ran on more luck, skill, hubris and humor than anyone involved would have imagined. Among the more amusing moments is how freeing one rover from a sand trap more or less amounted to throwing it in reverse and gunning it. NASA learned the hard way that Spirit and Oppy would just have to be patient, better drivers. There is also an informative montage of how they planned to drop each rover from a great height in a way that it wouldn’t be crushed like a bug in the ground.
Sometimes overcharged by solar flares that necessitated reboots en route, there is also the question of whether the rovers will simply just shut down one day. But Spirit and Oppy always seemed to boot back up — regularly standing on the edge before climbing up (and down) the walls of Mars craters to gather the most rigorous intel we’ve yet received on the Red Planet.
The mission also became a training ground for multiple generations of scientific supposition and exposition. Incidental tales of the team’s inspiration to stop at nothing offer interesting sidebars to the main story. They illustrate how applying scientific method to Spirit and Oppy’s occasional dilemmas also helped them advance their professional dreams and acclimate to upheaval in their personal lives.
The 20/20 vision and 5’2” stature (reflecting the average height of a human) of the rovers anthropomorphize Spirit and Oppy from the start. But the scientists and engineers also project their own personalities onto the rovers over time, which only serves to further crank the cuddliness. Ditto for the (largely) upbeat pop songs used to wake the robots up each day, from “Roam” and “Born to Be Wild” to “Walking On Sunshine” and “Here Comes the Sun” to more pointed selections like ABBA’S “SOS” (also spun into an amusingly dramatic orchestral arrangement by composer Blake Neely). Even in its bleakest moments, Good Night, Oppy ensures you never feel tired or unhappy.
It’s the sort of film that, 30 years ago, probably would’ve run about half as long and screened several times each day for schools on field trips at an Omnimax theater. There are no alarms and no surprises here, and Good Night, Oppy is an OK documentary about a more-than-OK computer.