The idea of traveling to Mars has long fascinated creatives and scientists. Apart from those who believe a settlement on Mars is merely a matter of time, the planet has long drawn interest. Its similarity to Earth cannot be ignored, yet its inhospitable nature makes us wonder what might have been. Perhaps more importantly, it could provide us a vision of what could come for our planet if we are not careful. The deployment of the Mars Rovers, Opportunity, and Spirit became a watershed moment for NASA in the 21st Century. The new documentary from Amazon Studios, Good Night Oppy, charts the adventure from the scientists who put their life’s work on the line. With gorgeous animation, impressive effects, and stunningly pathos-driven testimonials, the story of the Oppy Rover hits a home run as a story of love and hope.
Back in the 1990s, it became clear that NASA needed a win. After a handful of false starts and billions of dollars of embarrassment, America’s premier space exploration department needed to showcase its value. It had been more than three decades since Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon, and many wondered if the organization still had value. Over the next ten years, a team would assemble rovers to explore our neighboring planet of Mars. The mission would see two launches in 2003, with the rovers landing early 2004. This would be the beginning of a nearly fifteen-year journey. When the Opportunity Mars Rover (“Oppy”) lost contact in 2018, it had been among the most important scientific accomplishments in NASA’s history. Yet the impact of Oppy on the people who created and ran the program was far more personal than one might expect.
Directed by Ryan White, Good Night Oppy flexes a unique skillset as a biographical filmmaker. Previous hits like Ask Dr. Ruth, Good Ole Frida, and The Case Against 8 honed his skills as a storyteller. While each of those films offers emotional and cathartic moments, none reach the heights of Oppy as ensemble pieces. White once again introduces the audience to an atypical community and showcases how each small contribution changes the way we see the world around us. This is more than a narrative of hope. It is as much a celebratory funeral that sets the table for the future of the space organization.
Yet Good Night Oppy, the director takes something that feels metaphysical and showcases how a team of monomaniacal scientists are far more than the number crunchers audiences might expect. With their life’s work and legacy on display, Good Night Oppy feels like a victory lap, yet also forces analytical subjects to showcase their vulnerability. The idea of reckoning with your contribution to humanity makes for excellent talking head interviews, and White pushes his subjects to fully embrace what the successes and failures of Spirit and Opportunity meant for the planet.
The visuals of Good Night Oppy feel wholly unique thanks to CG Animation. At times, the Mars Rovers feel like a supersized story of Wall-E as he traverses the red planet. The animation and CG effects bring the mission to life in a far more tangible environment than the pictures can create. Using the tech this way also opens the door for a larger audience. While the black-and-white images transmitted by Oppy will resonate with some, this helps bridge the gap for those who need more context. Like Apollo 11, we could simply read about the mission and understand its takeaways, but the visuals add so much excitement to the story that we become enveloped in the tale.
While Good Night Oppy begins with a kinetic energy that drives the film, the second half on Mars provides far more introspection from the team. As they challenge themselves to create new ideas and explore another planet, they find themselves limited in what is possible. This forces the film to condense about twelve years of history into a thirty-minute segment that considerably slows down Good Night Oppy‘s pace. While mileage may vary depending on the audience member, this is the weaker half of the film after the excitement of the mission launch, solar flares, and crash-landing robots.
Good Night Oppy seems destined for educational purposes, but the raw emotion it inspires is a powerful thing. While it will teach an entire generation of future scientists how to aim for the stars, it also proves that following your passion can lead to true greatness. That is where Good Night Oppy rises as a film and becomes an inspirational story of adventure and love. As a little robot became consumed by the dust of a foreign planet, we watch the hearts of an entire organization break. However, grief and loss do not stop our ability to change the world. While the last twenty minutes of the film resemble a funeral, they also serve as inspiration. The community that got to know and love a little robot will never be the same because it affected their lives. Is that not the ultimate goal of a life well lived, be it robot or human?
As the film ends with the flight of the aptly named Perseverance, Good Night Oppy reminds us that our stories do not end when the lights go out. Instead, those who remember us can continue to build and change the world because of our impact on their life. Thanks to gorgeous visuals and heartwarming stories, the story of two Mars rovers will live on for generations.