My whole life, space has been a thing I’ve appreciated. My father loves NASA, and to this day, will watch launches on television. So, the idea of space exploration, and specifically exploring the surface of Mars, is not a new concept to me. Luckily, the new documentary Good Night Oppy isn’t only interested in informing you about research into the Red Planet. It isn’t even just interested in being a testament to the power of science. It’s also a doc that wants to invest and move you in regards to its title character, a rover who will steal your heart. The gamble, if it even could be considered that, pays off, with the emotional factor setting this film above many of the non fiction offerings this year.
Good Night Oppy is solid, if unspectacular, when it’s being educational. It’s when we watch the scientists reacting to Oppy’s highs and lows, often with the wakeup song they’d play for the rover, that this movie comes into its own. By appealing as much to your heart as your brain, it finds a compelling identity.
Narrated by Angela Bassett, the documentary centers on NASA’s 2003 exploration mission to Mars. Launching a pair of rovers, named Opportunity (or Oppy, for short) and Spirit, the robots are meant to last 90 days, with Oppy on the hunt for rocks and soil to analyze for evidence of water on Mars. Spirit goes down for the count about when it was designed to, but Oppy presses on. What was meant to last three months ultimately will go on for nearly fifteen years.
As Oppy explores Mars, the crew back on Earth realize just what a special rover it is. In short order, NASA develops a special bond with Oppy, commanding it one step at a time from 34 million miles away back home. These men and women are living out their dreams, working on space exploration, but they’re also now looking at the rover as a member of the family. Of course, when the inevitable end draws near, emotions run high. Saying goodbye to Oppy will prove more emotional than anyone could have expected.
The two rovers turn into actual characters, with Opportunity/Oppy really capturing your imagination. In short order, you’re all in on its missions. The successes that Oppy has, as well as the ultimate end, are what Good Night Oppy feeds on. You care about this rover, in a way that may prove fairly surprising.
Director Ryan White finds a way, along with his co-writer Helen Kearns, to lean into the emotionality of scientific discovery. Good Night Oppy has plenty of information to give you, but they’re fully invested in making you care about the rovers. White captures them in such a way that you never look at them as tools, always as characters. It’s an achievement that makes the film on the whole go down incredibly easily, aided by nimble narration by none other than Angela Bassett, as well as CGI renderings from Industrial Light & Magic. Kearns and White utilize it all to tell a story that’s easy to hook on to.
Good Night Oppy is the rare science documentary that’s almost all about heart. It informs, sure, but it also entertains and moves you. There’s a reason why this is one of the best docs of the year, and it’s because of how accessible and emotional it is. Where else can you cry at a song being played for a robot and have it make sense? Good Night Oppy is a rare find and a movie not to be missed.