In any film, a cute robot can do half the work in achieving viewer satisfaction.
Think about it. There’s R2-D2 (Kenny Baker “Casualty”) from “Star Wars,” Baymax (Scott Adsit, “Inside Job”) from “Big Hero 6,” Wall-E (Ben Burtt, “Super 8”) from “Wall-E,” Teddy (Jack Angel, “Toy Story”) from “AI: Artificial Intelligence” and Ava (Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”) from “Ex Machina” — kidding! Moviegoers fall in love with adorable androids to the point where their on-screen deaths would be just as heartbreaking as if they were human.
This phenomenon is similarly present in reality. Ryan White’s “Good Night Oppy,” the true story of NASA exploration rover Opportunity, who survived a remarkable 15 years on Mars, reaches a hand through space and time to deliver the poignant journey of one mighty warrior.
Expected to live for just 90 sols (90 days in Mars time), Opportunity, nicknamed “Oppy,” was sent to Mars in 2003 with her twin sister rover Spirit. In a charming opening scene, the film imagines Oppy as she “wakes up” to “roam” by the B-52s and does her morning rounds on her glorious home: Mars. The upbeat, groovy new wave tune seems to put a spring in Oppy’s step, and she begins to win our hearts.
“Good Night Oppy” won a total of five awards at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, including gold for Best Feature and Best Director. This acclaim is likely a result of White zeroing in on the deeply emotional side of space exploration instead of focusing on the nitty-gritty details of designing and sustaining the lives of Spirit and Opportunity. Although “Good Night Oppy” is not a science-packed documentary, it does not suffer from this shortage. The film triumphs in demonstrating that the scientific field is not unfeeling.
From a young age, mechanical engineer Kobie Boykins idolized fictional space commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), and “wanted to be the person that always fixed things.” Robotics engineer Ashitey Trebi-OllennuDuring shares in the documentary that it was during his childhood in Ghana when he found his fascination with engineering after taking a radio apart to see if there were people inside, only to be disappointed to discover there were not. “Good Night Oppy” not only tells the story of the laborious, high-stakes operation of caring for Oppy and Spirit, but also the fulfilled childhood dreams of those who undertook it.
White also makes one aspect of the team’s work environment a key feature of the film: the wake-up song tradition. The team would start each day by picking a song to “wake up” the rovers (and themselves). Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” was used for the twins’ first sol, and ABBA’s “S.O.S.” for when Spirit dug herself into tractionless sand, to name a few. The music is specifically chosen to underscore the state of the mission, amplifying the emotional impact of the film by simultaneously uplifting the spirits of the mission team and the audience in times of both joy and worry.
“Good Night Oppy” calls for tissues soon after it begins, as members of the team compare the building and sending-off of the twin rovers to the bittersweet reality of parenthood. Boykins refers to the moment Oppy turned her wheels on the ground for the first time as “her first steps.” The documentary highlights scientist Steve Squyres, the true father of Oppy and Spirit, as providing technical as well as emotional insight into the mission. Squyres walks us through his thoughts during launch day: “I have raised this child, now it’s that child’s moment to shine. It was hard to say goodbye. You put them on a rocket, and you shoot them into space, and you’re never going to see them again.” As a college student fledgling far from home, this line brought tears to my eyes. In addition to its disarming rovers, “Good Night Oppy” has the element of surprise on its side, as non-fictional art is traditionally not the sort to be emotionally candid. White snuck up on me repeatedly, cleverly pairing events and commentary to culminate in powerful emotional climaxes.
The pivotal emotional climax comes on Oppy’s last day. To try to wake Oppy one last time, Squyres — for the first time in 15 years — chooses the rover wake-up song. Tearfully, he plays Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Recorded seven and a half decades prior to Oppy’s sleep, Holiday somehow manages to speak fluently to those mourning Oppy: “I’ll find you in the morning sun / And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you.” The significant role music plays in this film’s emotional impact shines again — Holiday’s melancholic jazz ballad, distinct from the cheerful music played throughout, spoke deeply to me as an audience member.
“Good Night Oppy” shows that space exploration is personal — it revolves around teamwork, shared goals, moments of celebration and the discovery of life. In Squyres’ words: “The whole project was bound together by that feeling of love. You’re loving the rover and you’re loving the people who you built it with, you’re loving the people who you operated it with and tended it with you so lovingly for so many years.”
As the star-studded night sky hangs over a stationary Oppy, the film’s narrator (Angela Bassett, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) bids her farewell: “Good night, Opportunity. Well done.” We’ll be seeing you.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.