Great true stories about space exploration don’t come around too often anymore. Our pop cultural representations about NASA’s achievements (or failures) tend to be period pieces and retreads of the greatest hits. But the new documentary “Good Night Oppy,” directed by Ryan White, is an exciting and fresh story about a very recent mission to Mars, one that exceeded all expectations and then some, thanks to hard work, ingenuity, a lot of luck and dogged perseverance.
Produced by, among others, Amazon Studios, Amblin Entertainment and Industrial Light and Magic, “Good Night Oppy” is a documentary that aims to capture the sense of childlike wonder and expansive, imaginative scope akin to the films for which Amblin and ILM are known.
The Mars rovers were the brainchild of geologist and astronomer Steve Squryes, who grew tired of exploring the farthest flung reaches of the earth and dreamed of exploring Mars, imagining that a robotic rover could travel to the red planet in his stead. After years of proposals, NASA finally gave the OK to develop twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were launched in 2003 to search for evidence of water — evidence of life — on Mars.
The mission was intended to last 90 days (or Martian “sols”), but miraculously went on for 16 years, thanks to unexpected bouts of luck when the rovers reached the planet. White and co-writer Helen Kearns tell the story through well-curated and edited archival footage and interviews with a group of diverse and engaging NASA scientists and engineers who dedicated almost two decades of their lives to the journey of these rovers.
In every interview with the people who dreamed up, built and guided the rovers along their way, White and Kearns take care to foreground the human stories, about their childhoods and families, their sparks of inspiration. The jargon never gets too technical, and the scientists and engineers are more than happy to anthropomorphize the rovers, whom they speak about with great affection, often likening the rovers to their children or identifying closely with them.
When Spirit and Opportunity landed, they each set off to collect and analyze samples, photograph the landscape of Mars and explore the planet like little, curious tourists. Carefully navigated by the humans (or “earthlings” as they refer to themselves) located at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Spirit and Oppy endured dust storms and winter freeze, running into bits of unbelievable luck and frustrating hang-ups along the way.
Much of the filmmaking is focused on making this story accessible and interesting to a wide audience, especially to kids, and a storyline about the generations of students who watched the launch and later went on to work on the mission is a subtle way to beckon future aerospace scientists and engineers into the fold.
‘GOOD NIGHT OPPY’
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG (for some mild language)
Running time: 1:45
Where to watch: In theaters Friday and streaming on Amazon Prime Nov. 23