NASA planned on its 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission lasting 90 days. That was assuming the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched without mishap, survived the 6½-month journey, and landed in one piece. That was a lot of assuming. “Mars was a space graveyard,” says a NASA staffer in “Good Night Oppy.” Two-thirds of previous missions there had failed. So getting to 90 days would be a very big deal. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
NASA ended up with a whole lot of gravy. Spirit operated until 2011, and Opportunity until 2018, each slowly moving over the Martian surface and transmitting data back to Earth. Some of that outcome was luck. Who could have guessed that Martian dust devils would have the effect of cleaning off rover solar panels? Much of it was because of exacting planning and almost superhuman scientific and engineering skill. You want to see a real superhero movie? Go to “Good Night Oppy,” only be aware that the wielders of superpowers wear polo shirts and khakis, not capes and Spandex. And the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., is so much cooler than the Batcave or Fortress of Solitude.
Ryan White’s highly involving documentary tells the story of the MER mission. It opens Nov. 4 at the Kendall Square and Dedham Community and starts streaming on Amazon Prime Nov. 23.
“Good Night Oppy” tells several stories. The obvious one is the story of the rovers. There’s a marked preference for Opportunity (hence the title). Not only did it operate longer, it operated more smoothly. It also had a nifty diminutive. No one ever called Spirit “Spirry.”
The rovers’ story is pretty irresistible. The irresistibility starts with appearance. “It was a conscious decision to make the [physical] characteristics human-like,” a NASA technician says. The anthropomorphizing was there from the outset. The rovers were thought of as “twins” and are referred to with feminine pronouns: no “it” or “its”; always “she” or “her.”
“She becomes almost a living thing to you,” says NASA’s Steve Squyres,” whose idea the mission was. “To say it’s like a child being born would be to trivialize parenthood. But it feels like that.” In Oppy’s final days, words like “arthritic” and “forgetful” are used to describe its — excuse me, her — condition.
Anyone who watches the documentary and doesn’t think of “WALL-E” (2008) hasn’t seen “WALL-E.” The kind of emotional attachment that viewers develop with the title machine in the Pixar feature is even stronger here, because the rovers were real. Actually, they still are. They remain on Mars. They’re just not moving and transmitting data.
The attachment is also stronger because of the other story that “Good Night Oppy” offers. That’s the mission control people. In some ways it’s an even better story. The rovers and what they did are famous. The MER staffers are not. Their dedication and commitment to the mission are inspiring. Also, their attachment to the rovers is so great that it’s contagious. The rovers could look like a slab of cement, and mission control’s love would become yours, too.
The relationship was complicated. Mission control was parents, servants, and supervisors rolled into one. Problem solvers, too. The documentary verges on thriller at times, with the suspense over the difficulties the mission team has to overcome. Also there were the constant, if lesser difficulties: the 10-minute communications lag between Mars and Earth; the need for staff to be on Martian rather than terrestrial time. Do you start your day by logging on and getting e-mails about local weather? With MER, people would start their day by getting e-mails about Martian weather.
“Oppy” alternates among talking-head interviews with mission control staff, footage of control-room activities during the run of the mission, and highly realistic simulations of the rovers on Mars. Done by Industrial Light & Magic, those simulations make up almost half the movie. They’ve been executed with painstaking accuracy, but in a funny way it might be preferable if they weren’t so good. Since no disclaimers are offered, it’s not surprising if viewers naturally assume that what they’re seeing is actual documentary footage. Obviously, a moment’s reflection tells you that nothing on Mars could be photographing these images (the rovers were on opposite sides of the planet). Does that fictiveness matter? Many, maybe most viewers won’t care, and that’s assuming it even occurs to them. For those who do, it’s a problem.
Another problem is Blake Neely’s score. That one is hard not to notice. Can a trowel be shameless? If so, that’s the kind used to lay on the music.
Music of a very different sort is important to “Oppy.” NASA has a tradition of playing morning wake-up songs for astronauts. Why not do it for the rovers? We hear several of the selections: the B-52s’s “Roam,” Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” Katrina and the Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine,” ABBA’s “S.O.S.,” the Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun,” Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” You get the idea. It’s almost as much fun for viewers as it was for the people at the JPL.
The wake-up songs are among many arresting incidental details. There’s another NASA tradition, of “lucky peanuts.” Among the rover viewing options for mission control were “Hazcam,” “Navcam,” and “Pancam.” Martian days are called “Sols.” When Spirit wouldn’t turn itself off, mission control sent its ultimate order: SHUTDWN_DMT_TIL. That’s short for “shut down, dammit, until,” and it worked. Once shut down, Spirit was able to reboot. The rest — and a lot, lot more — is history.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY
Directed by Ryan White. Written by White and Helen Kearns. At Kendall Square and Dedham Community; starts streaming on Amazon Prime Nov. 23. 105 min. PG.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.