With an ever-present uplifting score, Ryan White's Good Night Oppy often feels like it is selling something. That lush score by Blake Neely isn't the only element that feels like a commercial. What is the film selling? That science is amazing as we learn about NASA's two famous Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit.
Good Night Oppy makes the most out of the fact that its stars kind of look like WALL-E. Made for families, the film follows their launch in 2002 all the way to the end of their lifecycles on Mars. The rovers were only supposed to last 90 sols long, sols is Martian for days. However, they ended up lasting several years before finally stopped working, a sad day for the people who made them watch millions of miles away. This element is the most engaging. Who knew searching for water would be emotional?
Angela Bassett narrates when the film isn't relying on a numerous amount of talking head testimonials from NASA employees. Engineers and scientists worked together to create these rovers and it becomes clear they all have an emotional connection to them. The robots occasionally communicate in endearing messages. White does everything to try to personify the robots. This sometimes gets in the way of the awe of man's achievement. The sentimentality towards the robots can begin to feel domineering over the scientists and engineers who made them. It can feel at times like the movie is manipulating an emotional response.
Good Night Oppy works best when it shows how this need for emotional connection to a mission drives these scientists and inspires new ones. It works less well in trying to communicate what we learned from this mission. Much of the film is centered around a series of obstacles the rovers meet on Mars. A wheel stuck in the sand turns into a suspenseful set piece. The film liberally uses CGI animations to depict the journey but never makes a clear distinction between the images the rovers set back and these photorealistic animations. While most adults will know the difference, a movie aimed at kids should probably make this distinction.
Good Night Oppy spends too much time on the challenges the rovers came across and not enough time on the things we learned from their journey. The talking head interviews do help to paint a vivid picture of how personal this project became to these scientists and engineers. They view Spirit and Opportunity as their children, sent on a one-way mission. The fact that these rovers lasted so much longer than planned only deepens that emotional connection. This rings very true and illustrates the passion behind such NASA missions.
Good Night Oppy has some great elements to it and the story is intrinsically interesting but White's heavy hand often lays on things so thick that one can't feel dulled by the approach. You feel White engineering reactions rather than trusting this feat of science to be compelling enough to carry the film. Curiously, the film still leaves you unsure about everything accomplished. While the film tries to appeal to kids, even giving the rovers cute sound effects, the children in my screening were extremely restless.