This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in a movie, especially a documentary, than I was with “Good Night Oppy,” director Ryan White’s inspirational and entertaining tale of NASA’s Opportunity rover. In the summer of 2003, the space agency launched twin robots on a journey to Mars to search for evidence of life. This film tells the true story of “Oppy,” her sister Spirit, and their incredible adventure on another planet.
It’s an irresistible American success story of teamwork, dedication, brainpower, and resolve. After carefully planning and designing the rovers, NASA sent the twins to the Red Planet on a groundbreaking mission — with a life expectancy of only 90 days. With a stroke of luck, Oppy ended up surviving for 15 years, sending back incredible data and photographs that changed the shape of astronomy and history. Through photo-real visual effects and animation by Industrial Light & Magic, the film captures the exploration with eye-popping wonder. And by talking with the scientists, engineers, operators, and the amazing team of people behind the scenes, White beautifully expresses the emotional bond that was formed between Oppy and her humans back on Earth.
It’s incredible how easy it is to get emotionally invested in Oppy’s mission. From the original blueprint to the rover’s very first steps, I found myself cheering along with mission control when things were going well, and sharing in their disappointments when they faced major obstacles. The story is fascinating and almost unbelievable, as Oppy and Spirit mange to survive disaster after disaster, from getting stuck in sand to weathering months-long solar and dust storms. I was on the edge of my seat as I waited to see the fate of these rovers, watching and waiting and holding my breath along with the folks back at NASA.
By combining the true stories of the folks that lived them with CGI scenes that play like an action film, White makes this story of robotic geologists fun. It’s an engaging and sentimental documentary, and one that surprisingly runs the gamut of emotions. It doesn’t hurt that Oppy and Spirit have an adorable, WALL-E like quality and appearance, either. The two rovers start to feel human, especially when current and former employees at NASA refer to Oppy’s age-related conditions after years on Mars. She begins to develop “arthritis” in her “arms,” her vision becomes blurry, and she begins to have problems with memory and forgetfulness. It’s only a matter of time before she powers down and doesn’t wake up, and it’s a gut punch when that day finally arrives.
“Good Night Oppy” is an exemplary documentary that had this astronomy nerd smiling from ear to ear. It’s a story about curiosity, exploration discovery, the ingenuity of humans, and their love for the little rover that could.
By: Louisa Moore