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Calling all space nerds: New documentary Good Night Oppy will give you all the feels

Enlarge / “Opportunity was our brave, intrepid explorer so we could see this unchartered world that we’d never seen before.”
Prime Video

For over 14 years, space nerds and the general public alike were riveted by the parallel journeys of Spirit and Opportunity, twin intrepid Mars rovers who launched and landed on the red planet three weeks apart and surpassed their original 90-day missions by many years. We watched from Earth as they explored the Martian surface and dutifully collected samples before finally giving up the ghost in 2010 and 2018, respectively. Now we can relive that journey all over again—while others can discover it for the first time—in Good Night Oppy, a dazzling, feel-good new documentary from Prime Video directed by Ryan White.

It’s easy to forget that the triumphant story of Spirit and Opportunity began against a backdrop of two previous failed missions to Mars: the Mars Climate Orbiter, a robotic space probe that lost communication as it went into orbit insertion, and the Mars Polar Lander, which never re-established communication after what was likely a crash landing. While the orbiting 2001 Mars Odyssey mission was a success, there was still tremendous pressure on the teams at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to finally land an autonomous solar-powered robotic rover on Mars. Another failure could have jeopardized the future of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program.

Fortunately, both launches went off without a hitch. There was a moment of terror when Spirit bounced dramatically upon impact, resulting in a nail-biting delay until the signal was re-established. (The engineers in Good Night Oppy joke that Spirit was always a bit of a drama queen.) But Spirit was fine, and Opportunity landed safely a few weeks later. Each rover spent the next several years exploring their respective regions of Mars, overcoming steep hills, getting stuck in the loose Martian soil, and bracing against dust storms to deliver oodles of valuable scientific insights back to mission control on Earth.

Along the way, the rovers also captured the public’s imagination and hearts—people like White, who dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a child and became a documentary filmmaker instead. So White and lots of other people (Ars staff included) experienced some feelings when NASA announced it had lost contact with Opportunity on February 13, 2019, after she failed to respond to over 1,000 recovery commands. (Spirit had succumbed nine years earlier, going silent on March 22, 2010; NASA officially concluded the mission on May 24, 2011.) To mark the end of a mission that exceeded expectations by 14 years and 47 days, mission control transmitted “I’ll Be Seeing You,” performed by Billie Holiday.

It’s those kinds of moments that White conveys so eloquently in Good Night Oppy. “These robots took off when I was in college, so I only followed this mission from afar,” he told Ars. Making the documentary helped him appreciate the scientific mission and legacy of Spirit and Opportunity even more. Ars sat down with White to learn more.

Enlarge / Bringing Opportunity to life.
Prime Video

Ars Technica: Why did you decide to make this documentary?

Ryan White: I grew up in Georgia and desperately wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. It’s a dream that never worked out for me, but becoming a filmmaker did, which was my other real passion as a child. My favorite film as a kid and even today is E.T. Documentary filmmakers have a unique job where we get to throw ourselves into these situations even though we don’t have the [technical] expertise. My favorite part about this job is getting to be a part of these remarkable journeys.

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The idea was pitched to me by Film 45 and Amblin Entertainment, and it felt like an incredible way to relive that childhood dream. The story checked all the boxes of what I love in all the documentaries that I take on: some sort of adventure, or a journey with a person as they’re going through something—except this time it was a robot. Plus, NASA had almost a thousand hours of archival footage that we could use to take people on that adventure. So I said yes.

Ars Technica: There’s clearly some VFX in there in addition to the archival footage. You can’t go to Mars and film. So I assume that you had to re-create certain aspects.

White: Exactly. We had the video archive from NASA, but I wanted there to be a Mars side of the film. I didn’t want people to just be watching it from Earth and through photographs that Opportunity and Spirit had taken. At the very beginning, I asked Amblin, “Is there a world where we can take the audience to Mars, almost as if I was able to go there with these robots and shoot with my documentary crew? Can we bring Mars to life in a photo-realistic, authentic way?” They didn’t know, but they set me up with their friends at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Enlarge / Opportunity takes a selfie.
Prime Video

ILM said, “We’ve never done it before, but we would love to give this a shot.” It meant basically building Mars from the ground up, using the hundreds of thousands of photographs that we had of the journey, because the robots are covered in cameras. We know exactly what their journeys looked like on every day. It’s not a mystery anymore, what Mars looks like. We don’t have to use our imaginations. We just needed a company that could make those scenes move and make Mars look real. It took years to create those visual effects so we could send the audience on this adventure with Opportunity and Spirit on Mars. The archival footage gives you the Earth-bound part of the story, following the human beings behind the mission.

For the selfie sequence, ILM did the scene through the robot’s eyes. Anything else that’s in black-and-white in our film actually is through the robot’s eyes. Some of it appears like video because it uses time lapses, like flipbooks. For instance, when Oppy is on her two-year journey to Endeavor Crater, we strung together all of the photographs that she took. That’s why you can see the horizon getting closer and closer and closer. So whenever you’re in her black-and-white Navcam or Pancam, that’s almost always real photography.

Ars Technica: What is it about Spirit and Opportunity, do you think, that appeals so much to the public? 

White: We’ve anthropomorphized non-human creatures or characters throughout storytelling history. I think that’s why I loved E.T. as a little boy. In this case, I think by design, NASA created lovable creatures. They could have created something very different. Some of it was for form, like making the rovers 5-foot-2 so that when humans saw the imagery back on Earth, they would see it as if we were there on the ground. The eyes had 20/20 vision. The arm moved like a human arm so that it could drill or use a microscope or take measurements in a way that a human arm would.

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Enlarge / “Good night, Opportunity. Well done.”

But it was also sort of a genius foresight. They wanted the public to come along for the journey. Having a traveling robot, versus just a little lander that sits on the ground, invites the public on an adventure. I think that’s the only reason I was able to make a film out of it. If it’s a lander sitting there just looking around until it gets covered in dust, that’s not very cinematic. But here you have the first overland expedition of another planet done by these cute little robots. They are our stand-ins, since we can’t go there ourselves. Opportunity was our brave intrepid explorer so we could see this unchartered world that we’d never seen before.

Ars Technica: She’s an extension of us, essentially.

White: Exactly. So I think we project our emotions on her, and when she’s in trouble, we’re in trouble, and it weighs heavy. And when she’s discovering past water on Mars, it’s humanity’s discovery of water. It’s that emotional bond that forges through an adventure that you’re on together.

Ars Technica: From a narrative standpoint, you had a challenge because you can’t ignore Spirit, twin to Opportunity. You handled that really well, especially by employing a split-screen approach for their launches and landings, even though they were actually three weeks apart. You gave Spirit her due, and she deserved it.

White: Thank you for even noticing that. It definitely was one of the biggest narrative struggles. From the beginning when the project was pitched to me, it was called Good Night Oppy. It’s a great title. We tried titles that included Spirit and they just didn’t have the right ring to it. And Opportunity did double the lifetime of Spirit, so the whole second half of this narrative trajectory is Oppy’s journey without Spirit. But from the very beginning, it was clear that Spirit was loved just as much by the NASA scientists and engineers.

Enlarge / xkcd captures our grief over losing Spirit (sniff).

I liked the idea of the problematic twin sister who didn’t have it as easy and had an uphill battle. She had to climb mountains first and figure out a way to do that. We decided on hitting the double beats of the Spirit and Opportunity launches and landings with a split screen in the edit room. What if we try to tell these stories side by side even though they’re three weeks apart? We put the dates up there, so it’s honest, and we have a couple of lines saying they took off at different times, and they landed at different times. We knew the audience is smart enough to digest both of those journeys at once. In the end, it’s the story of both rovers. It just happens that Opportunity’s the only one still around for the last 35 minutes of the film. I’m very much team Spirit as well.

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Ars Technica: You also captured NASA culture, right down to playing different songs to wake up the rovers, as well as just how emotional the teams can get, and how devoted they are to these rovers and their missions.

White: I was a total nerd growing up. I still am. One of my best friends growing up is now an astrophysicist. So it’s a world that I glamorize. I’m not that person, but I know a lot of people who are. So I really enjoy that culture, and I enjoy surprising people with how fun and infectious and emotional that culture can be. Initially, I went into this thinking our biggest challenge was probably going to be the human beings—how good a storyteller are they going to be, or how emotional, at the end of the day?

But the biggest challenge was that we interviewed too many phenomenal storytellers, too many people with powerful emotional anecdotes or relationships with the rovers, or something happening concurrently in their private lives. I will always feel guilty because I know I can’t do that full team justice. There are so many people who worked on these robots that aren’t in the film. We have 11 human characters in our film, and we have hundreds in the archival footage. I think you could have made a different version of this film with any other 11 of those people.

Enlarge / xkcd’s final tribute to Opportunity. (Ahem… something’s in our eyes).

Ars Technica: What did you personally learn along the way?

White: A major universal takeaway to me was how special our planet is. And how lucky am I to get to make a film that shows us that in an apolitical way? I never take on films because of social issues or to send a message; I’m not an activist filmmaker in any way. I always am drawn to a film by character. I think it’s hard to politicize an adorable little rover with a bunch of instruments on Mars, proving things. It’s a conversation about climate change on Mars, and it’s coming from a rover, not a human being.

The more overarching and frankly cheesier takeaway is the inspiration I took from this collective group of human beings. It’s a global endeavor. How often do we have people from all over the world coming together anymore on a singular mission to do something for mankind? [Principal investigator] Steve Squyres has said it to me a million times: “My title is principal investigator, but I can do the tiniest fraction of this mission. I’m a geologist, I know the rock part, but I know nothing about how we land those rovers on Mars, how we travel through space, how we operate them day to day. I don’t know what to do if something breaks.”

Another person only knows how to fix the arm if it breaks. This takes thousands of people coming together collectively, each with their own expertise, and they all have to do their job perfectly. I think that is really inspirational. So to me, it’s a story of humanity coming together to do something amazing that we were told was impossible.

Good Night Oppy premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 3 and had a limited release in US theaters on November 4. The documentary starts streaming on Prime Video on November 23.

Official trailer for Good Night Oppy.