This review originally ran September 12, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s hard to articulate, let alone recreate, the feelings of camaraderie and wonderment that spontaneously arise from the participants of any discovery, formal or otherwise. The makers of “Good Night Oppy” try anyway in this new documentary about Spirit and Opportunity, two robotic Mars space rovers that outpaced everybody’s expectations.
Writer-director Ryan White (“Assassins,” “Ask Dr. Ruth”) uses a mix of talking-head interviews, expository voiceover narration (provided by Angela Bassett), and computer-animated reenactments (produced by Industrial Light and Magic) to relate some of the unexpected successes and challenges met by the NASA team members when they oversaw Spirit and Opportunity’s surprisingly long trip to Mars.
Unfortunately, White’s presentation — making its premiere at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals — fails to make the most of his primary pieces of dramatic evidence, making it even harder for viewers to share his interview subjects’ well-earned excitement.
At first, the main focus of “Good Night Oppy” seems to be the story of Spirit and Opportunity’s unexpected survival as well as their intriguing successes in collecting geological and atmospheric samples from Mars. Bassett narrates and ILM illustrates a clear path from the rovers’ pre-launch prep in 2002 to Opportunity’s eventual shutdown 17 years later. Between these two major milestones, team leaders like mission manager Jennifer Trosper, lead scientist Steve Squyres and chief engineer Rob Manning explain what happened as they searched for signs of former life on Mars.
Recreated footage of the rovers flying to, landing on, and carefully exploring the red planet tend to be the most engrossing material in White’s scattershot documentary, which too often tries to humanize the rovers’ handlers by playing up their emotions instead of their accomplishments.
In “Good Night Oppy,” NASA scientists and engineers frequently refer to Spirit and Opportunity as their biological children, a comparison that’s only mildly challenged by Squyres, who fears that such a comparison trivializes parenthood. Still, that metaphor pops up several times throughout White’s documentary, which not only speaks to his witnesses’ strong emotional investment but also their interviewers’ general focus on experiential details.
Footage from inside NASA’s Mission Control mainly provides a narrative arc to White’s version of Spirit and Opportunity’s Martian expedition. In a few scenes, the NASA team members use a “wake-up song” to express where they are emotionally during various periods of their mission. These wake-up songs also helped to pump up NASA employees while they adjusted to their disorienting work schedule, which was at least partly determined by the lag time between the two Martian rovers and their Earth-bound minders. Unfortunately, White rarely sticks with his control-room footage long enough to make song cues like Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” seem any less corny, from an outsider’s perspective.
Most of the crew members’ over-edited reminiscences veer so far away from technical or scientific explanations that it eventually becomes hard to nod along during their interview segments. Because no matter how hyper-intelligent they may be, these scientists and engineers can’t really emote well enough to articulate their personal or professional accomplishments with effusive soundbites like “I’m gettin’ tingly!” and “My child has arrived!”
There are flashes of a more detail-oriented nonfiction narrative scattered throughout “Good Night Oppy”, as when Squyres marvels at enlarged black-and-white photos from NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 expeditions. Or when a group of engineers recall figuring out how to dig Opportunity out of a Martian sand dune by recreating the conditions of that sand dune back on Earth. “From an engineering perspective, it was exciting,” one engineer says. “Because we like a challenge.” White doesn’t really illustrate or consider the specific conditions that made this dilemma so rewarding, so viewers just have to trust one speaker’s generally phrased opinion.
A few animated sequences do, however, add a sense of dramatic tension and help to give viewers a sense of the rovers’ daunting mission by focusing on Mars’ vast and inhospitable terrain. These dramatic reenactments never seem completely realistic, but they’re gorgeously rendered and also, for sheer scale alone, some of the most impressive stuff in White’s boilerplate documentary. There’s also some genuinely exciting archival footage of various crew members as they watch, sigh and smile nervously throughout various unfathomable events and attendant wake-up songs.
Many of us will never know the thrill of hearing Billie Holliday sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” and experiencing the same “feeling of gratitude,” as one scientist puts it, right before Opportunity permanently shuts down. But seeing White try and fitfully succeed in approximating complex emotions can sometimes be thrilling anyway, as when Opportunity gets lost momentarily, and ABBA’s “S.O.S.” plays over a relatively extensive montage of control-room footage.
There’s still not enough humanizing footage here to convey why that music cue is “perfect,” as one interview subject says. But the fact that White slows down long enough to let that song play over some over-edited footage does conjure an expectant mood. “Good Night Oppy” may struggle to illustrate its experts’ testimony, but it does sometimes give one the feeling of having seen history in the making.
“Good Night Oppy” opens in US theaters Nov. 4 and on Prime Video Nov. 23.