Call it the Wall E effect. Good Night Oppy could have been a straightforward story about a really successful NASA project. But they just HAD to design that thing so incredibly adorable didn’t they? Let this be a lesson to the moviemakers out there: just make your robots as cute as possible, and people are going to get emotionally invested in your mission.
This specific NASA mission might have actually inspired Wall E (released in 2008). In 2003, scientists wanted to send robots to Mars to see if water might have ever existed on the planet. NASA built two robots, Spirit and Opportunity, to go up there for 90 days, and investigate various Mars craters to test the soil for possible signs of water, and, therefore, carbon lifeform possibilities.
Why would a 2003 Mars mission inspire a documentary now? Well, because the 90 day mission incredibly went on for 15 YEARS!!! Good Night Oppy is very much a love letter to scientists and engineers, who willed the Spirit and Opportunity missions to their incredible success. Other than maybe The Martian, no film better encapsulates how scientists and engineers collaborate with each other. And yes, as the movie points out, they’re different and importantly so. Scientists are the boundary pushers, who want to go further and farther and bolder to learn as much as possible; engineers are their foils, pointing out the limitations and obstacles needed to overcome to get what the scientist wants. That means an always evolving list of problems that need to be collaborated upon and solved to achieve goals. Oppy’s first and biggest obstacle is simply landing them on Mars, and all the complications for how that might go right or wrong. Then data stops transmitting. Then a wheel breaks. Then a giant planetwide dust storm hits. Director Ryan White partners with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic to bring each problem to life for the audience and uses all the scientists and engineers who worked on the problem to explain how they found their solutions, bringing each problem to life and innately raising the stakes of the mission with each new issue to resolve, with more than a little luck on their side as well ;). Plus, the mission’s success answers some real questions humanity has had: was Mars ever inhabitable? What might have happened? etc.
If Good Night Oppy were just an ode to science, it would have been great. But something about THIS project is special. I think Ryan White realized quickly that each of these problem solving oriented people would talk about Spirit and Opportunity like a family member they grew up with. You can feel the emotional intensity of every scientist whenever they’re talking about a problem they’ve overcome, as if they’ve saved someone from dying. Because of the length of the mission: Spirit and especially Opportunity projected onto different family members for the experts who worked with them: some saw the robots like sons or daughters (multiple creators mentioned how different their personalities were). As years pass, the robots turn into parents: multiple kids who were fortunate to visit Houston during the early days of the Spirit/Oppy project were inspired to become Aerospace Engineers (including more than a few women, hell yeah!), and eventually got the chance to pilot or work with the robots themselves. Then, as the robots’ “death” approached, we get stories about how lessons learned at NASA helped the scientists and engineers with their grandparents. In the end, Good Night Oppy transforms from a story about science into a story about life itself, and the two robots who lived their lives to the fullest.
Steven Spielberg’s Amblin also produced Good Night Oppy. When George Lucas AND Steven Spielberg team up on a project, you know it’s gotta be something special. Good Night Oppy feels fitting as the latest collab: it takes place in galaxies, it’s far far away. And I assume UChicago and Harrison Ford are involved in some way. Seriously, Ford owes both those guys for his incredible career.