OOpportunity is quite a character. I’m talking about the star of Ryan White’s crowd-pleaser, Oscar-winning documentary Good Night Oppy: a NASA-constructed rover that was sent to Mars in 2003 on a 90-day mission that surprisingly spanned 15 years.
Opportunity, or Oppy as some affectionately call her short, is a hybrid of wheels, wires, antennas and solar cells that come together with characteristics that are familiar to humans. It has a neck that looks retrofitted from a kitchen sink drainpipe. And her head has cameras spread out horizontally in binocular formation like eyes. And when – in an early scene of Good Night Oppy – the rover pulls up in front of what she thinks is a Martian obstacle but turns out to be her own shadow, we can’t help but give her a comical personality.
Oppy looks and occasionally acts like Wall-E, the adorable trash compactor from the 2008 Pixar film who is tasked with cleaning up the earth after humans left our planet as a red, dust-covered wasteland. Good Night Oppy’s director White has heard this before. On a Zoom call from Los Angeles, he smiles knowingly and admits his film has been billed as a documentary response to the Pixar film, when the wording should be the other way around. “NASA is very careful to point out that Spirit and Opportunity came first,” he says.
White welcomes the comparison. Nasa rovers like Spirit and Oppy clearly inspired Wall-E, and the Pixar film in turn was an inspiration for Good Night Oppy, a document that combines archival footage of Nasa engineers working on site with CGI recreations of Oppy and Spirit mixes Mars.
White’s documentary often feels like talking to films from the past, inspiring childish wonder and bringing these tales of science and space exploration down to earth with humor and pathos. The relationship is right there on his poster. Good Night Oppy is produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment. Their logo positions ET, the lovable alien from Spielberg’s ’80s classic, in the stars above Opportunity.
“ET was my favorite movie growing up,” says White, a self-proclaimed space nerd whose previous documentaries about tennis player Serena Williams and sex expert Dr. Ruth were about extraordinary personalities who remained down to earth. He explains that Spielberg’s ET gave him direction to shape a story around a machine whose sole purpose is to study space rocks. “It’s a film about a non-human character that I hope audiences will connect with or feel emotionally connected to. And at the end of the film you have to say goodbye to this character. It is sad but also very hopeful.”
Amblin, along with Peter Berg’s company Film 45, approached White with this project in 2020, two years after Oppy’s last transmission from Mars reported a low battery and dark skies. Amblin and Film45 producers had secured NASA’s collaboration and access to the mission’s archives. White came up with the idea of not just relying on the archives and talking head interviews to tell the story of Spirit and Opportunity, but using CGI to create a narrative that puts the audience alongside the two rovers on Mars would. The filmmaker argues that it was the only way to truly do justice to a daring mission that – as his documentary recounts with riveting play-by-plays – had far too many chances of failing. “If we’re going to make a film about this incredibly innovative and daring mission,” says White, “we should represent that in the film and not play it safe in some sort of instructional DVD. Let’s try something really bold.”
White says he made this pitch at dinner with Amblin and Film 45 on March 12, 2020. The day after, on March 13, Trump declared Covid-19 a national emergency in the United States. The world was shut down, but that had no adverse effect on Good Night Oppy as much of the documentary was to be created using archival footage and visual effects rendered by artists from around the world working remotely. They made a film that takes us as far as science can get at a time when our orbits were limited to the space between home and the grocery store.
To recreate Mars, Amblin connected the filmmaker to Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975 to produce Star Wars. It’s just another strand in Good Night Oppy’s shared DNA with sci-fi film history.
ILM had never attempted photorealistic recreations of Mars before, but White says they had data from Nasa to be as authentic as possible in Good Night Oppy. The direction of the sun, the tint of the sky, and the amount of dust would be rendered accurately to the precise moment as Opportunity and Spirit roam the red planet, collecting rocks, getting stuck in quicksand, or braving dust storms and freezing temperatures.
The film is also acutely aware that data collection, science, and accurate imagery of a desert planet are uninteresting to an audience without a narrative hook. “Try explaining gamma-ray spectroscopy to an eight-year-old,” astronomer Steve Squyres says in the documentary as a challenge, before explaining how “Spirit and Opportunity” has made Nasa’s work universally appealing. The robots, with their adorable Wall-E-like features, took on a life of their own in the public consciousness long before they gave Good Night Oppy a sensitive character to base their story on.
That human connection comes across very easily in the film, especially because Nasa engineers projected so much emotion onto the rovers, often describing Spirit and Oppy as if the robots were their children. Engineers also tend to explain everything humanly, such as when a malfunction or system failure is referred to as a cold or pneumonia.
“These robots are the proxies for these people,” White says, explaining how NASA’s engineers were essentially living proxies for the rovers because they can’t dig through Martian rock themselves. “They inevitably project human qualities onto this robot.
“It’s not just about emotion and sensitivity. It’s also the design. You could have designed a robot in many different ways. They certainly could have designed a robot that didn’t look like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. But they did. They have created a robot that is adorable and lovable, has a face and an arm. That was no coincidence. That is intentional.”