Directed by: Ryan White
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Written by Patrick Hao
Throughout the documentary, “Good Night Oppy,” the talking heads talk about how difficult it is to not humanize the Mars rovers, Spirit, and Opportunity. They describe the twins as having distinct personalities. They created big round eyes as cameras, no doubt an inspiration for the Pixar character Wall-E. And it is through this amorphization that Ryan White was able to find the hook for his film. As one of the talking heads bluntly put it, it is difficult to talk about the actual numbers in physics, but when you can attribute science to something tangible, that is how you spur the public’s imagination.
The most overt tactic White uses in making its main character, Opportunity, also known as Oppy, seem human is the use of these fictionalized diary entries voiced by Angela Bassett. There is no greater sympathy you can get than hearing the dulcet tones of Bassett’s radiant voice. But, all of these tricks do not really matter because the central core of the story is the magic of science. It is what makes movies like “The Martian” or “Apollo 13” great. It is about a group of people and personalities coming together and doing something seemingly impossible. What seems more impossible than having close to 300-pound rovers landing on Mars, which are meant to last 90 Sols (the measurement of a day on mars), and explore Mars for close to 15 years.
That is not to say that White’s pop documentary filmmaking aesthetic is not effective. He is able to assemble a compendium of footage from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create great dramatic tension. His use of music from “SOS” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” as well as the recreation of the rovers on Mars through visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic also adds to the myth-making of these rovers’ mission on Mars. Whit knows when to fully embrace fast-cutting montage. And then he knows when to slow down to create drama. With all these pop sensibilities, it is no wonder that this is a production by Amblin, Steven Spielberg’s company.
When it comes down to it, however, the greatest special effect is the people. The countless times the engineers and scientists in the control room make the Spielberg Face in wonderment at what they did. That same awe is transported years later to the talking head interviews as they reminisce about those days. Their passion for space exploration, problem-solving, and most fascinating, geology is palpable. One scene in which one of the scientists explodes in excitement over a cluster of rocks is delightfully charming.
“Good Night Oppy” plays like STEM propaganda, which is not a bad thing by any means. The film as a whole is most interesting as an exercise of technique by a clearly talented documentary filmmaker. However, in trying to humanize science, everything is laid on with a thick layer of maple syrup sentimentality. That is not to deny those feelings are genuine and true. But, after an hour and a half, I had to come down from my sugar crash.
“Good Night Oppy” Trailer
“Good Night Oppy” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.