A sense of wonder, camaderie and fulfillment fill the faces of the NASA scientists as two robotic space rovers Spirit and Opportunity touchdown on Mars. They land on opposite sides of the planet, set to look for the presence of water, which would ultimately determine the possibility of life. According to plan, the time period for this expedition would take no more than 90 days, but Spirit and Opportunity manage to stay much longer, providing important data for years. Spirit was able to do so for 6 years whereas Opportunity held on for as long as 15 years. The human attachment that these two rovers cause with the NASA scientists form the core of Good Night Oppy, the new documentary streaming on Prime Video. (Also read: Capturing the Killer Nurse review: A morally depraved system is the biggest villain in this horror tale)
Directed by Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, The Case Against 8), Good Night Oppy is a big-hearted, enthusiastic feature that often glides past the scientific core of the proceedings to focus on the more crowd-pleasing aspects of the exploration. Angela Bassett powers through a voiceover narration even as the director takes help from animated reenactments of the two rovers to provide the small successes along the way. Meanwhile, there is a rich buildup of character through the interviews of the NASA scientists, as they relate the unexpected and life-changing attachment with Spirit and Opportunity over the years. Chief among them are lead scientist Steve Squyres, mission manager Jennifer Trosper and chief engineer Rob Manning who provide details about the exploration from the beginning. We see their younger selves in the original footage of building the rovers, and it instantly reminds us of the years that have passed by. What has remained constant is their excitement and passion towards the project.
Goodnight Oppy is co-produced by Amblin Entertainment, the company which belongs to director Steven Spielberg. It is interesting to note how Ryan White’s documentary is, in many ways, bolstered with the same crowd-pleasing energy of Steven Spielberg’s biggest blockbusters. The early footage of the construction of the identical twins, the small mistakes, and the several testings, are engrossing, yet Ryan too often focuses on the human investment as the scientists longingly refer to these robots as their own children. Each one of them form an emotional connection to these machines that is more than just professional. The NASA team members even recollect how they used a “wake-up song” to share where they were emotionally during the gruelling work hours.
It becomes a little manipulative at times, with reminiscences of the personal motivations to become a NASA scientist clogging down the pace of the film. The reenactments of the exploration, with the rough terrain of Mars that both Spirit and Opportunity manage to touch are levelled out with a sense of gratitude and fulfilment rather than focusing on the scientific bit. The comparisons with Wall-E are not in Good Night Oppy’s favour at the end of the day, as the latter lacks the daring and sensibility of a feature to complement itself within the limits of a documentary.
The main problem with Good Night Oppy is how disproportionately the film glides past the science and the complexity of such a revolutionary project to offer an optimistic, crowd-pleasing testament of the human spirit. The runtime of 105 minutes is long enough to pull through this excitement, yet struggles to convey the professional commitments behind the mission. Good Night Oppy is glossy and manipulative in parts, but the central idea of the power of human ambition and exploration remain quietly captivating.