Good Night Oppy
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Ryan White
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)
From the earliest moments of recorded history, the objects in the sky have fascinated humanity. They formed the foundation of our calendar systems, gave rise to tales of gods and fortunes, and eventually led to rigorous examination using modern scientific protocols. Along with this systemization of exploration, the sense of mystery held. Far less practical considerations, such as a sense of wonder or the deep questions about our own place in the universe, would provide another facet of our drive to reach further and further up to the stars.
It’s this duality between the pragmatic and the poetic that forms the basis of Ryan White’s ode to Opportunity and her sister probe Spirit, two robotic mechanisms launched to another world. They were expected to have short lifespans, but surprised just about everyone with their longevity. The fact that a semi-autonomous device could be sent off as a kind of avatar for ourselves, performing scientific study and beaming back imagery, is made even more astonishing when one considers the over-100 million kilometer distance between these devices and the people who built them.
White’s film occupies two spaces. First, there’s the presentation of the Martian landscape and these twin explorers using sophisticated photo-realistic CGI. The basis for all imagery was guided by detailed telemetric data as well as detailed plans from NASA, resulting in animation far more “truthful” than is traditionally seen in fiction and non-fiction films alike. Later in the film, we see the raw images beamed back, forming mosaics and slowly morphing into the far more cinematic renderings, buttressing our understanding that what we’re seeing isn’t merely an artist’s flight of fancy, but images that are as close as we’re likely to get as audience members to the true vistas from the Martian planes.
The second space involves the engineers, scientists, and mission specialists who over many, many years both cared for and provided problem solving for both rovers. The devices are discussed in highly anthropomorphized ways (one interviewee even compares her own twins to the ships themselves), and while it’s easy to see how attachments can be made with these devices that they spent so long obsessing over, it does appear sometimes to be counterproductive and even perhaps undercuts the seriousness of the science at play.
Still, this is all forgiven, of course, as the intent isn’t merely the search for the conditions of life on another planet, but also the hope is to instill a sense of wonder and passion for scientific exploration in general, particularly in young people destined to one day join the ranks based on their own, personal connection with these robots. There is great passion behind the endeavour.
Screened on a giant IMAX canvas, Good Night Oppy is a remarkable film to behold with ILM work that is quite stunning. With a completely different atmosphere, things at first looked a little “fake,” but it’s clear that this vision puts audiences in the vantage point as if they’re seeing Mars from the robots’ perspective.
Of particular note is the extraordinary soundscape. Oscar winner Mark Mangini, known for the like of masterpieces like Mad Max: Fury Road and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, built the sounds from a mix of field recordings of land-based models of the rovers, as well as newly recorded sounds captured by the latest NASA rover, Perseverance. There are also a number of “wake up tunes” as per manned missions, making for a jaunty soundtrack that ranges from big-name artists like Abba, The Beatles and even Wham.
The result is a visually stunning testament to these missions, and a moment of reflection granted to those who played a major role in making it happen. However, there’s no real dive into budgetary restrictions, or shifting political positions, or even how the space program is inexorably tied to American military industrial complex procurement practices. Rather, Good Night Oppy is keen to show the real struggles of what seemed impossible until only recently, and managing despite all the odds to extend the life nearly 10-fold from the original mission parameters.
Good Night Oppy is an exciting, educational and entertaining film, set to instil wonder in audiences of just about any age. And while it may feel slightly like cheerleading, it’s nonetheless a welcome addition to the range of space docs that thrive on large format screens. Seen through the eyes of children, it will be easy to fall for the charismatic portrayal of these rovers. Seen through the slightly more jaded lenses of adulthood, you’ll nonetheless likely be swayed by the powerful story and mindboggling human achievement.
Good Night Oppy premiered at TIFF 2022 and screens on Prime Video later this year.