Movie review

In “Good Night Oppy,” we are on Mars.

We are making inchmeal progress across the gritty surface of the Red Planet heading toward a distant crater. We are gazing at an unfamiliar horizon through the camera eyes of the Opportunity Mars rover nicknamed Oppy. 

We are seeing things humankind has never seen before. 

We are amazed.

And “Good Night Oppy” is a pretty amazing documentary about NASA’s Mars rover program.   

Seamlessly stitched together from photos taken by Opportunity and its sister rover Spirit, from interview footage of NASA engineers and scientists who worked on the project, and from computer-generated images crafted by the special effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, “Oppy” offers a you-are-there experience that is quite extraordinary. 

CG dust devils swirl in the distance. The progress of the six-wheeled rovers over the Martian terrain is painstaking, stirring dust and maneuvering carefully around large boulders. 

Launched on July 7, 2003 (Spirit went up earlier on June 10, 2003), Oppy and Spirit were designed to be functional for 90 days. Imagine their designers’ — and the world’s — surprise when, like the Energizer Bunny, they reached their sell-by date and then just kept going and going and going and going.  

Spirit pooped out after six years and 77 days. As for Oppy, on and on it went, for 14 years and 138 days. It traveled 28 miles during that time. A remarkable feat of engineering. 

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Over the years, they sought, and found, evidence that water had once existed on the surface of the planet. No signs of life were found.

Oppy and Spirit were sent to opposite sides of Mars. Powered by solar panels and identical in design, their Earthbound controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California soon discovered they had quite different personalities. Oppy was a smooth operator and relatively trouble-free in performance.

Spirit was somewhat temperamental and prone to mechanical difficulties. It once got stuck and presented a challenge to its controllers to revive it. Throughout the mission, controllers would select so-called wake-up music to mark the start of another day of operations. When the glitch stilled transmissions from Spirit, ABBA’s song “SOS” sounded from speakers in the control room.   

With Angela Bassett providing the narration, director-screenwriter Ryan White, a veteran documentary filmmaker, presents the Oppy saga as a multigenerational tale. A young woman named Bekah Sosland Siegfriedt was an eighth grader when the rovers launched and she caught the space bug. She decided to make a career in the field and eventually became a flight director for the rover program. Another girl, Moogega Cooper, entered a rover-naming contest at age 17. Over the course of the mission, she became an engineer with the program. 

In interview clips, we see adult members’ hair thinning and going gray as the years pass.

Most of these people would qualify as space nerds. A Marvin the Martian doll is seen perched on a console in Mission Control. A member of the team cites “Star Trek” as an inspiration for choosing his career path. 

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Their long involvement with the rovers led many of them to view the machines as family members. The design of the rovers, with cameras mounted on a stalk 5-feet, 2-inches high, was, we’re told, intended to match the eye height of a human. 

“She became a family member,” an engineer declares of Oppy. Crucial milestones are greeted with jubilation and hugs. When the machine finally grinds to a halt, the mood in Mission Control is somber. Tears are shed. 

Though Oppy and Spirit have expired, Mars exploration is now being carried on by the rover Perseverance, launched on July 30, 2020. 

And “Oppy” is a salute to the best of what humans are capable when they unite in a common purpose to expand their knowledge of matters beyond the realm of the known.

“Good Night Oppy” ★★★★ (out of four)

Directed by Ryan White from a screenplay by White and Helen Kearns. 105 minutes. Rated PG for some mild language. Opens Nov. 4 at Crest Cinema.