The story of Opportunity and Spirit—the long-lived Mars rovers—is fascinating, but a new doc forgoes focus on the mission for feeling to its detriment.
Ryan White’s Good Night Oppy is a documentary about one of the technological marvels of our time, but it’s less interested in science than its subject matter would suggest. It throws several elements into its mix—archival footage, contemporary talking-head interviews, voiceover narration from a big star (Angela Bassett in this case), and long sections of CGI recreations of moments not caught on camera. But instead of using them to edify viewers about the genuinely amazing accomplishments being achieved (the kind that might encourage younger viewers to get interested in science), White seems more inclined to deploy them in a manner meant to suggest a (mostly) live-action version of a Pixar film.
The subjects of the film are Spirit and Opportunity, the two robotic space rovers NASA sent to Mars in 2003. Their mission, assuming they survived the long journey, was to explore the terrain and send back data that would help us get a better fix on the red planet, primarily whether there was any evidence of water in its past. When the mission launched, the hope was that Spirit and Opportunity (nicknamed Oppy) would last for about 90 days before permanently shutting down. Miraculously, they both wound up vastly outlasting their initial lifespans and collecting more information than anyone at NASA had dared to dream. When Oppy, the longer-lasting of the two, finally shut down for good, over fifteen years had passed.
The behind-the-scenes footage of the scientists and technicians as they build the rovers, test them, and try to puzzle out unexpected hiccups is gripping.
When the film focuses primarily on Spirit and Oppy’s journey from the labs at NASA to the surface of Mars as well as their startling longevity and the information they transmitted, it’s a fascinating watch even for laypeople. The behind-the-scenes footage of the scientists and technicians as they build the rovers, test them, and try to puzzle out unexpected hiccups is gripping. The CGI reenactments of the Mars mission aren’t quite as captivating, but they do a reasonable job of illustrating what the rovers did while they were up there.
This is compelling stuff, and if Good Night Oppy had stuck to it, it might have been something really special. But it spends far too much time with the scientists running the mission in scenes emphasizing their emotions rather than their intelligence. Many of them describe the rovers as they would their children, though one does hesitate to do this for fear of making light of parenthood, and another even compares the final days of one of the rovers to a relative slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease.
When it (Good Night Oppy) attempts to broaden its scope, it falters and becomes less interesting.
White is trying to show the scientists in a more human light but, in practice, all this amounts to is scenes of people uncomfortably trying to express their emotions, with scenes detailing their problem-solving pushed to the side. (More screen time is dedicated to the decisions regarding the selection of daily “wake-up” songs played in the control room than to how the scientists work out how to free one of the rovers when it gets dug into the surface and cannot move.)
When Good Night Oppy sticks to the parameters of the Mars mission that it is ostensibly covering, it is undeniably engrossing, especially for viewers with a preexisting interest in things like robotics and the space program. When it attempts to broaden its scope, it falters and becomes less interesting. If White had focused primarily on science, the film might have better measured up to its fascinating, worthy subject.
Good Night Oppy will stream on Amazon Prime starting November 22nd, 2022.