Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 15th, 2022
Good Night Oppy (Ryan White, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
What motivates the human race to seek out new frontiers, to explore strange new worlds, maybe even to seek out new life and new civilizations, perhaps to boldly go where no one has gone before? (Thank you, Star Trek) These and other metaphysical questions are the subject of director Ryan White’s latest documentary, Good Night Oppy. A talented and prolific filmmaker, White (Ask Dr. Ruth) now turns his attention away from terrestrial matters to Martian ones, following the lifespans and career highlights of twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on the red planet in 2004 and expired in 2011 and 2018, respectively. As much as the movie is about robots, however, it is even more about the aspirations of our own species, and a moving tribute to the ingenuity and dreams of homo sapiens it is.
Sent to opposite sides of Mars, Opportunity (call her Oppy, for short) and Spirit set out to examine and collect rock specimens and test the surface for signs of ancient water, especially of the pH-neutral variety (as in, drinkable by us). Such evidence, if found, could point to the possibility that Mars once harbored actual life, rather than the dust that now sweeps across its vast plains. If indeed, as theorized, the planet was covered in oceans in ancient times, what caused the subsequent change? And therein lies the key for why NASA is willing to spend untold sums on such a project: if it could happen there, it could happen here. There are lessons to be learned. Class is by no means dismissed.
Mixing CGI animation, archival footage, and interviews with the NASA engineers and scientists who worked on and with the rovers, White probes the many things that could go wrong with the mission and then everything that goes right. Expected to last only 90 sols (a Martian day, 40 minutes longer than our own), Oppy and Spirit far exceed even the most optimistic predictions. Given how attached to them our diverse cast of fascinating characters become, it’s a win-win all around. But then it is even sadder when they succumb to wear and tear.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of the story is when we meet the once-teenage (and younger) women now working for NASA who grew up in awe of the program and followed their childhood ambitions to where they are today. Science is a lot of things, for many of which we should be grateful, and as here presented it is also a great equalizer; White makes sure to turn his lens on many folks of color, too. When we explore with the best of intentions, we can and should all do it together. Thank you, Oppy, and good night.