Good Night Oppy (2022)
Good Night Oppy (2022)

Genre: Documentary Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: November 23rd, 2022 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Ryan White Actors: Angela Bassett

 


 

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n 2003, twin sister robots Opportunity and Spirit leave for Mars, with a life expectancy of a mere 90 days (or sols, which are Mars days). But before that feat, this documentary chronicles a bit of the history of the red planet’s exploration, from the ’70s Viking missions to the ’80s rover and lander model go-ahead, leading to the later, exceptionally demanding two-year timeline to launch (dictated by a rare alignment of Earth and Mars). With a design intentionally crafted to connect with humans (from a face-like camera system to a height of just over five feet – a human average), this billion-dollar national asset – a pair of autonomous solar-powered rovers – is set to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center, launched separately by a few weeks.

The work involved in creating the robots and shooting them into space is astronomical. So too are the possibilities of failure, not only ranging from external forces, such as solar flares and dust storms and freezing temperatures, but also the complex nature of crash-landing prior to getting onto the surface of Mars itself. And the film is edited together almost like a thriller, with flashbacks to earlier, failed missions, alongside the occasional, manipulative delay to generate tension. There’s even strangely unnecessary footage from some of the NASA employee childhoods, as if detailing the various narrators’ histories makes them more interesting. But the geological information returning from Mars is undoubtedly more engaging than the personal lives of the scientists and engineers – though the professionals themselves in their work environments contribute to valuable footage.

Nevertheless, it helps that NASA experts are used as talking heads to fill in the blanks – mostly from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, including a mission manager, lead systems engineer, rover drivers, principal scientists, mechanical engineers, a robotics engineer, a camera operations engineer, and more. Actress Angela Bassett also lends her voice for commentary and to read from the rover diary, while a classic rock soundtrack livens things up (part of a morning wakeup song tradition carried over from astronauts). Since the film is essentially a life story of the robots, the chronology is simple enough, as is the structuring, with pitfalls arising and extra missions planned when the 90-day lifespan is greatly surpassed. It makes for an obvious narrative, while the subject matter is mostly intriguing enough to maintain a feature-length documentary.

The Martian vistas – as created by legendary special effects company Industrial Light & Magic for various swooping pans through rocky terrain – are visually stimulating, but could definitely use some clarification. Every time it’s slightly unclear as to what is simulated computer graphics and what is actual footage from Mars is somewhat troubling – even though it should be obvious that the majority of imagery is manufactured. Plus, it tends to significantly undermine NASA’s technological capabilities. Almost none of the information could be visualized in a captivating way without computer-animated additives; it’s rarely revealed how primitive some of the photography is (out of focus when the cameras age, and always in black-and-white), especially when the cutting-edge technology of current moviemaking might be anticipated.

Ultimately, however, the unique nature of Mars exploration makes this production worthwhile, providing details about the remarkable discoveries (chiefly, the former existence of water that could have sustained ancient microbial life), while also showing the exceptional span of time. The average layperson, however, isn’t likely to fully appreciate the game-changing nature of the rovers’ discoveries; the consequence of water on Mars, for example, will still be unknown to the vast majority of audiences. But it’s also fascinating just to see the new generation of NASA engineers that were children and students, aspiring to one day become involved in the Opportunity program, now fulfilling their vocational dreams. And though the documentary runs a touch too long, padded with some clearly extraneous sequences (particularly when it comes to the scientists interacting inside their homes with their families), it’s routinely compelling, especially for anyone curious about the fate of Opportunity and Spirit and their lives on Mars.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10