No documentary has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. Actually there has never been a documentary nominated. If ever there was one opportunity to change that stat, at least in terms of a nomination, could be remarkable, emotional and uplifting Good night Oppy transcending the genre to become a richly rewarding cinematic experience, sort of a cross between Wall-E and The Martian. all of this actually happened, but it’s pretty unusual because it’s really feel-good, and it’s all brought to life in an irresistible new movie that will remind you of the very best of us in a time of divisiveness and negativity.
This Amazon Studios and Amblin Entertainment production, which debuts tonight at the Telluride Film Festival, is the story of a fantastic journey, that of two rovers sent to Mars on what was expected to be just a 90-day mission, for that is the usual lifespan of these robbers, but instead turned into a 15-year adventure, mainly due to the tenacious determination and sheer will of a true survivor named Opportunity, a robot who performed miracles well past her expiration date and forged an unforgettable relationship with the people who built her up for several years, her and partner Spirit shot into space on a six-month journey to the Red Planet, and in return created a bond that has to be seen to be believed.
Of course it is used to be seen, not only by the scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home of the mission, but so many who followed the mission for a very long time from January 2004 and lasted 14 1/2 years, improbable, magical, mind-boggling and seductive.
Using cabinets full of archival NASA footage that had been stored untouched, plus state-of-the-art special effects on photos and animated recreations of the actual action on Mars courtesy of the wizards of Industrial Light & Magic, along with some immersive human interviews with those close to it, project, director Ryan White and his film team have written a love letter to space exploration, as well as a heartwarming family film with real emotional undercurrents that won’t leave dry eyes in the house by the time it ends.
The idea of the mission was that these rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, would land on the surface of Mars and collect geological and atmospheric samples to send back to Earth to the enthusiastic team, numbering thousands over time, who they have made for this purpose. What no one thought about was the connection that was also established, from musical wake-up calls sent every morning by JPL to tracking their every move, sometimes dangerous, while the robbers do their thing. Even before going on an adventure, it became clear that Opportunity – or Oppy as she was known – was a Wall-E doppelgänger, the smartest girl in the class, while Spirit was the problem kid. That dynamic would play out once they reached Mars, and eventually Spirit’s mojo would wear off, but not for an unheard of six years. That was nothing compared to Oppy’s stamina in all kinds of weather and contingencies as she went on without her companion.
White, whose previous documentary included: Ask Dr. Ruth, also managed to sort through the endless boxes of archival footage taken over the years to identify the key players who could help tell the story. We’ve been with them over time because they explain it all in very human terms, which is what makes this movie so appealing. Chief among them is lead researcher Steve Squyres, now gray-haired but no less eager if he lives to tell the story, and project systems engineer and mission manager Jennifer Trosper, among the literal generations of scientists involved over the 15-year span. One of them, Abigail Fraeman, was a high school student at the start of the mission, and now a leading NASA scientist, and the list goes on. The script (by White and Helen Kearns) was tailor-made to introduce us to the people who were so important to its success, their highs and lows over the years, the changing of the guard but never the ultimate goal , all out of love for Oppy .
A special kudos not only to ILM’s visual effects team, but also to the editors, Kearns and Rejh Cabrera, who did an amazing job of putting this together in just 105 minutes. There’s also a great score by Blake Neely, aided by a great soundtrack of those “wake up” songs. The expert sound design is by Mark Mangini and Angela Bassett provides the unobtrusive narration. Producers include Jessica Hargrave, Brandon Carroll, Matthew Goldberg, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and White. Amazon is giving this a theatrical run in November, which is a good thing because this really should be seen on IMAX screens or the biggest they can find, and then it’ll start streaming later in the month. It’s a space odyssey worth hopping aboard.