Can a human being have a deep emotional tie to a machine? That’s the question posed by “Good Night Oppy.” a film made by people who have never been boys polishing their first cars or motorcycles. Launched in 2003, Opportunity and Spirit were “twin sister” rovers with six bulbous wheels, a thick antenna, an armature with an “elbow,” a binocular-like “face,” a “body” that was the flat surfaces of solar panels and a “neck” like a miniature giraffe. A cross between R2D2 and a real-life Wall*E, the rovers captured the hearts and mind of many space travel enthusiasts, including those who had grown up spellbound by Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and more. Opportunity and Spirit, which had to be rebooted in flight after a solar flare, both landed and deployed successfully in 2004. They had a life expectancy of 90 “sols,” Martian days. Spirit was in a harsher climate than “Oppy” aka Opportunity. In contact with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the two little stop-motion-ready space gremlins had some autonomous abilities and were tasked with helping to learn if Mars had ever had surface water and therefore the chance that it had once sustained life.
Directed by Ryan White, co-director of the award-winning 2014 documentary “The Case Against the 8,” and co-written by him and Helen Kearns, “Good Night Oppy” dabbles in more than a few cliches and can be cute to a fault. But the truth is that this story of a machine that was designed to operate for about three months and ended up being operational for over 14 years is just mind-boggling. Yes, Oppy was the little engine that could, and this little robot is genuinely going to inspire children.
Meanwhile, back at NASA, team members play wake-up songs such as “Roam” and “Born to Be Wild” to inspire themselves and their ‘bots One of the humans in the film is Abigail Fraeman, who watched Spirit and Opportunity land on Mars in 2004 when she was a teenager and went on as a young adult to become a member of the team overseeing the Mars Exploration Rover program. Spirit and Opportunity are like mechanical versions of Matt Damon in “The Martian” (2015), and like him their mission is to survive the harsh conditions, including the heat, cold and sand storms of the Red Planet. They are the little, metallic Robinson Crusoes of Mars. Astronomer and planetary scientist Steven Squyres and Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper will age, along with several of their colleagues, over 15 years witnessing the “birth” and “life” of “Oppy.” Its antics include several attempts to get out of “Perils of Pauline”-like quandaries such as getting caught in a sand trap. Some of the images from Mars are existing footage. Others are computer-generated by the NASA of special effects companies, Industrial Light and Magic. The score by Blake Neely (“Greyhound”) is notably uplifting. Angela Bassett provides her delightfully sonorous intonations to the narration. Go, Oppy, go.
(“Good Night Oppy” contains no objectionable material)
“GOOD NIGHT OPPY”
Rated PG. On Amazon Prime.