Dusty, colder than cold, 139,000 miles away from the sun, Mars isn’t the most hospitable of environments. Nor is it the most universally compelling of film settings. Not everybody, after all, wants to go on a space odyssey, let alone one whose protagonists are robotic vehicles. Ryan White, the director of a feelgood documentary about a recent feat of American space exploration, came up with a solution: take a subject that is literally lifeless, and draw parallels – however improbable – to the human condition.
Co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and narrated by Angela Bassett’s soothing voice, Good Night Oppy faithfully if somewhat cloyingly relays the story of a 1993 mission to Mars that was supposed to last for 90 days but ended up going for 15 years. Spirit and Opportunity, the marvelous machines at the heart of the movie, might look more like ostriches than people, with their long necks and camera eyes sitting on the sides of their boxy heads. But this is a film engineered to unleash swells of connection and emotion, and part of that involves presenting the rovers as adorable and quirky 5ft 2in humans.
White is a science geek, and he wants you to be one too. He imbues the identical twin rovers with their own personalities (Spirit, we’re told, is a rebel, while Oppy is an overachiever). And the scientists and engineers behind them are their mothers and fathers – and in this rendering they’re less Stem stars than vessels for the pride and the heartbreak that are endemic to parenthood.
They come on camera to transmute the ineffable magic of space exploration into something more easily digestible. A range of Nasa affiliates who could lead graduate-level seminars in aerospace robotics and Martian geology show up to impart lessons of the heart: landing a rover on a distant planet is like childbirth. Building one is like having a baby in the NICU. Ageing rovers get arthritis, suffer memory problems and get gray hair (as one likens the dust that builds up between the cables to). Rovers – they’re just like us!
The talking heads are a warm and emotionally expansive bunch. Their fondness for the project that defined their careers – and held the public’s attention – is palpable. Lest the verbal cues fail to work viewers into a state of awe and wonder, Blake Neely’s score ensures that the mood never dip from its lofty heights.
One wonders if the rovers really needed such an anthropomorphic assist. Were the stakes not high enough? Mars was already a graveyard of failed rovers when the pair set off for space. Oppy and Spirit endured solar fires, dust devils, and a mishap where one got its – sorry, her – wheels stuck in sand. Their mission was to survey the landscape for signs of water. Such clues would indicate that life may have thrived on the planet. Outfitted with cameras, they beamed images back to ground control. (They also took selfies.)
The least conventional part of the film is the photorealistic CGI a team of 28 makers used to recreate the surface of Mars. Hollywood films set on the planet are often shot in the desert, but this novel technique renders a mesmerizing landscape, a fascinatingly unfamiliar expanse of swells set against a sepulchral sky. The scenes are so realistic that most viewers probably won’t notice that the scenes with the rovers are a simulation. Outer space heads will go wild.
For those of us with more earthbound predilections, the scenes chronicling the scientists’ adventure as it played out down below are affecting. Captured on archival footage, seen in their Spotlight-era fashions, these visionaries can be seen frowning when the mission is losing luster, and rejoicing when a signal drops down from the great beyond. The images speak for themselves; no metaphors required.
White’s decision to focus on human emotion comes at the expense of some loftier concepts bound up in the story. Why do we invest billions of dollars in discovering whether we’re alone in the universe? If, as evidence suggests, Mars was once a wet planet, how do we be the stewards of our own planet in a way that ensures that rovers don’t eventually come exploring the carcass that was formerly called Earth?
White’s film is calibrated to make excellent viewing for family movie night or perhaps an elementary school science class learning about Perseverance, the latest robot geologist to roam Mars. In addition to being testament to the power of cute, Good Night Oppy might inspire a new generation to reach for the stars.