Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity — the stars of Ryan White’s inspirational and wonderfully engaging “Good Night Oppy” — were designed to last 90 days on the Red Planet. Instead, they went right on exploring the alien terrain for years, sending invaluable data and images back to NASA the whole time. For scientists, students and astronomy buffs around the world, the two robots became mascots for a historic mission, the goal of which was to find evidence of past water on Earth’s nearest neighbor, for that in turn could suggest the possibility of life on Mars.
To call the MER experiment a success would be an understatement, but it wasn’t until this delightful documentary that a more important point became clear: As it turns out, for nearly 15 years, there was life on Mars: Within the opening minutes of “Good Night Oppy,” White convinces us that these two solar-powered, remote-controlled research tools weren’t just machines but sentient characters with personalities, every bit as relatable as Pixar’s lovable trash compactor, WALL•E, or the Johnny 5 droid from “Short Circuit.”
White, who has a talent for making unusual subjects relatable in docs such as “Assassins” and “The Case Against 8,” anthropomorphizes Spirit and Oppy by quoting members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who use gendered pronouns to describe the rovers, talking about them like members of their own families. “Once the rover’s on Mars, it has its own life … and it needs to be given love,” says one. “Sometimes, she has a mind of her own,” observes another. Add to that Angela Bassett’s empathetic voiceover (Oppy communicates only by on-screen text commands) and Blake Neely’s feelsy score, and audiences will find themselves actually caring about these gizmos — 5’2″ space pioneers, with wide eyes and minimally “expressive” heads, heroically going where no man has gone before.
In a real coup, the filmmakers partnered with Industrial Light & Magic to show what even the NASA scientists themselves couldn’t see until now: Spirit and Oppy rattling about on the six-month rocket journey, parachuting down to the surface of Mars, and rolling about through miles and miles of copper-colored sand, facing all kinds of unforeseen challenges. For large segments of its running time, “Good Night Oppy” is more than just a documentary; it’s an animated film as well — and a hugely entertaining one at that.
There’s considerable debate in the documentary world about the use of reenactments — whether they’re fair in a medium that’s so focused on reality — but in the case of this film, those sequences make all the difference. The only cameras NASA sent to Mars on this mission were the ones directly attached to the two rovers, and even these were relatively lo-res devices. Quite late in the movie, the scientists back on Earth decide to use Oppy’s extendable arm to turn the camera around for a selfie, stitched together from multiple snaps. It’s an emotional moment for the team, who have been looking out through “her” eyes this whole time — whereas we’ve had the advantage of ILM’s incredible visual effects shots, which present these rovers against the unfamiliar planet’s awesome geography, accompanied by a soundtrack of daily wake-up songs (classic rock anthems, mostly, like “Born to Be Wild” and “Roam,” which the scientists selected each morning).
Also working to White’s advantage is the sheer depth of NASA’s self-documenting footage. The MER mission launched way back in 2003, and there’s a remarkable amount of video from research labs, field studies and control-room sessions to make it feel as if his crew had been covering the operation in depth for the past two decades, as opposed to coming on after Oppy powered down for the last time (by this point in the movie, the word “died” is more apt, since our attachment has grown so strong, you may even shed a tear when it happens). When you think about it, the robots’ 90-day life expectancy seems arbitrary and perhaps overstated: The scientists clearly hoped they would last longer, and NASA was ready to extend the mission as long as it could.
That’s where “Good Night Oppy” gets really exciting, as White collapses weeks of incremental progress (which must have felt like watching paint dry, as the rovers rolled across miles of open terrain between craters) to the pivotal moments when scientists had to jump in and problem-solve. How to deal with dust storms, for instance, or getting stuck in sand as fine as cake flour? Then there are the aging-robot issues, memory loss and joint failure, which the film likens to Alzheimer’s and arthritis.
Like classic Disney short subjects, “Good Night Oppy” is an ideal choice for classrooms: a practical demonstration of applied science, showing how designers work with engineers, and where human contributions to these fields can take us. Put another way, it’s an out-of-this-world example sure to get kids fired up about STEM. The meek may well inherit the earth, but it’s the nerds of tomorrow that will get us to Mars.