Our world hasn’t quite caught up to expectations set by science fiction of flying cars, starships, and first contact with aliens. Actual technological developments are still very impressive, if considerably less glamorous in many cases. A prime example of an incredible accomplishment that moves at a glacial pace is the Mars rover program, a massive undertaking that involves significant delays in interplanetary communication and mile-long journeys that takes months. Good Night Oppy captures the positivity of the process, breaking down and celebrating each milestone of the groundbreaking program.
Ryan White introduced his film at its TIFF premiere by calling it a movie about robots but also about “an incredible team of human beings who dared to believe in the impossible.” Twin sister robots Spirit and Opportunity were painstakingly designed after an arduous approval cycle and launched into space three weeks apart in 2003. It took them six and a half months to reach their landing sites on opposite sides of the planet, and their life expectancy due to the buildup of dust on their solar panels was ninety days. Due to a mix of good luck and unexpectedly helpful dust storms, they lasted much longer than that, enabling considerably more expansive exploration of a still mysterious neighbor planet.
As White says, this film is just as much about the people who constructed, operated, and communicated with the robots as it is about them. Footage of early conversations and the exuberance felt in the room when both rovers successfully landed on Mars sets up the lengthy timeline of this project, and interviews with scientists reflecting on their work are lively and informative. They are all curious and eager to learn, particularly about whether water exists on Mars, suggesting the possibility of life. But they are also deeply attached to these robots whom they lovingly describe with human attributes.
This film recreates the routes taken by the two rovers visually, painting a much clearer and smoother picture of the planet than they actually send back to NASA each day. That’s for the benefit of the audience since they likely wouldn’t be as impressed with grainy images of a planet’s surface that don’t inherently have much meaning. But what this film does is to make the whole thing relatable, bringing in the public support for the rovers and their journeys but focusing much more on the love that these people who spend their days directing and following the movements of these robots feel for them.
It’s endearing to learn about some of the traditions these engineers have, like playing a different wake-up song each day to get things started and to motivate the team. It’s also remarkable to note the precision and dedication they exhibit, from having to continually adjust their days by about an hour since a “sol” on Mars is slightly longer than a day on Earth, to building replica environments to troubleshoot how to help the rover bypass a roadblock. So much is out of their control, but they take such care to ensure that whatever they’re able to direct will be done right and output the most productivity possible.
White has crafted a film that should be digestible for a wide range of potential viewers. Those with an interest in and knowledge of science and space exploration will appreciate the straightforward nature of each explanation that doesn’t oversimplify anything, and those without any prior introduction to Spirit and Opportunity will benefit from the abundance of information offered in an engaging and accessible way. It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of what these rovers have been able to map and the potential implications of those findings, but this film does a wondrous job of showcasing that in an entertaining, inviting manner.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Good Night Oppy will be released in select theaters on November 4 and on Prime Video November 23.