Documentary Review: ‘Good Night Oppy’

Greetings again from the darkness. “Check out the brain on Brad!” There may or may not have been a ‘Brad’ on the NASA team we follow in Ryan White’s documentary, however Samuel L Jackson’s famous line from PULP FICTION certainly holds true for the rest of the team that helped execute the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. A brief overview outlines the attempts to gain approval, followed by the design and planning and testing to ensure the window for launch was met. See, the launch was scheduled according to a planetary alignment that only occurs every 26 months. A late arrival would have been costly, and possibly ended the program before it really started.

The mission was to send a rover to Mars and have it procure samples from around the red planet in hopes of finding evidence of water, which would likely mean proof of past life. We see some of the design stage as the engineers note the human characteristics, though most movie fans will immediately notice physical similarities to WALL-E. The team created two “twin” robotic rovers named “Spirit” and “Opportunity”. The expectation was that each would have a 90-day lifespan and send scientifically significant data back. The race was on to meet the launch date in 2003, and the two rovers were launched three weeks apart – and to different areas of the planet.

After the 6-and-a-half-month flight time to travel 300 million miles, the two rovers were successfully landed, which only kicked off some of the challenges back on Earth in mission control. It’s here, and with the numerous interviews of team members, that we really get a sense of the emotions running through these folks who had invested so much time and energy into making the mission a reality. Computer engineered reenactments (stunning work from Industrial Light & Magic) help us visualize what happened on Mars, while the archival footage from inside the NASA control room conveys the palpable tension as they helplessly wait for the next signal to arrive.

Although Mr. White’s documentary centers on scientific achievement, much of the focus lands on the human element. We are there to witness first the relief, and then the jubilation as that first signal from Mars is received. Scientists, designers, engineers, and drivers all experience the rollercoaster of emotions driven by the intense camaraderie and teamwork involved. Should you ever doubt whether the smartest people on the planet experience human emotions, you need only look at the faces as daily ‘wake-up songs’ are played, including “Roam” by the B-52s, “SOS” by Abba, “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. Additionally, after the 90-day window has closed, the annual “cocktail napkin” records each team members prediction about rover survival over the coming year.

Emotions and accomplishments go hand in hand for these NASA types, as do the challenges presented by harsh winters and dust storms that put west Texas to shame. It’s remarkable that Spirit lasted more than 7 years, and Oppy (the “lucky rover”) went for 15, before finally being shut down while Billie Holiday sang “I’ll be Seeing You.” Wisely, director White ends on a high not with the 2020 launch of the new rover, Perseverance. What an inspiring trip this is.

Opens in US theaters on November 4, 2022 and on Prime Video November 23.

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