Good Night Oppy is a love story. Not in the same sense as When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle. But this could be The Notebook of scientific documentaries.
A relationship is formed and continues to grow over time, and the bittersweet battle of aging plays an antagonistic role in the lasting bond.
The same can be said of the loving relationship the team of NASA engineers had for their rovers named Spirit and Opportunity (or Oppy).
The documentary is not just a showcase of the amazing feats mankind has accomplished in the space program but a heartfelt story of scientific connection spanning from Earth to Mars.
Good Night Oppy begins with a group of scientists in various fields being interviewed about the extensive journey leading up to the rover mission on Mars.
One of these interviewees is a geologist named Steve Squyres, who discusses his time exploring geology on Earth. Squyres discusses how he grew unsatisfied by retreading the same daily work in his field and wanted to reach for something more exciting.
A scientific love story through space and time
The interviews explain that the proposals sent to NASA took years to get approval before the team of researchers was given the green light to begin work on the Mars exploration. If this reviewer’s memory is correct, the documentary indicates the proposal process alone took over a decade. From here, we see the construction of rovers Opportunity and Spirit being assembled by the amazing team of researchers.
The editing is brisk when showing the journey from rover assembly to space launch. It may even feel rushed as we jump into the rover launch swiftly. But to be fair, the launch and Mars exploration is the section with the most flavor.
As Good Night Oppy launches into space, the film combines elements of archival NASA footage of the happenings at the headquarters, accompanied by incredibly produced reenactments of the rovers’ flight through space (not to mention gorgeous recreations of the habitat on Mars).
The documentary does a decent job of conveying the stakes moment by moment. For example, the capsule carrying the rovers encounters a solar flare unexpectedly. This impacts the integrity of the computers inside the rovers, making the rover team feel anxious that the mission is over before it even starts. It feels almost like a real-life Mission Impossible in these moments, with the team having to play a game of chess as unpredictable setbacks arise.
Once the Mars mission is in full swing, the relationship between the team and these two rovers starts to mature. Yes, we are discussing machines that have no artificial intelligence. However, the crew treats Spirit and Opportunity as if they were sentient. And in some ways, it is almost convincing that these rolling robotic research machines are alive.
The crew plays wake-up music for them each day of exploration. The engineers built a computer capable of giving both machines their autonomy, a tool that allows Oppy to save itself in one area of the documentary.
Time plays a major role in the sentimental story of the Mars rover project. The film begins with one rover driver by the name of Ashley Stroupe. And by the time the documentary nears its conclusion, a new generation has taken control of the wheel.
We get a sense that NASA engineers such as Stroupe emotionally connect to these bots by spending time with them daily. Almost similar to taking care of a vulnerable child each day in a new environment– only that environment has an insane amount of sand storms.
Time also could have benefited the documentary as well. The entire research between both rovers spans almost two decades. The documentary does a stellar job telling a story with that much detail within 100-plus minutes, surprisingly well. However, a detailed docuseries could give some moments to breathe and possibly more insight.
Good Night Oppy is The Notebook of science documentaries
Even so, Good Night Oppy is a surprisingly emotional journey. As stated at the start of this review, one can draw comparisons to love stories like The Notebook. SPOILER ALERT for a somewhat old Nicholas Sparks movie. In that film, a couple meets, has a turbulent love affair, and grows old together, then the husband spends his last days trying to snap his wife out of her Alzheimers fog so they can share one last moment together.
Opportunity (Oppy) and Spirit had similar true life comparisons. The NASA engineers fell in love with their bots, had a turbulent relationship on Mars with their companions, grew old together, and spent their last days trying to keep Oppy from succumbing to old age obsoletion.
The end result is a love story about science that tugs on the heartstrings. Grab some ice cream and tissues, and prepare for a romantic real-life story about man and machine.
Good Night Oppy is in select theaters today and on Prime Video on November 23.