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Movie review: ‘Good Night Oppy’ is a feel-good film about a little robot that could

Nov. 2, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 3, 2022 at 9:20 a.m.

A scene from the documentary “Good Night Oppy.”  (Prime Video)
A scene from the documentary “Good Night Oppy.” (Prime Video)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

NASA aficionados and connoisseurs of space exploration are the groups most likely to get a kick out of “Good Night Oppy,” a warmly charming, if far from essential, documentary that takes a look back at the robotic Martian rover Opportunity. Nicknamed Oppy by its NASA creators and handlers, the rover was launched in 2003 to explore Mars in search of evidence of ancient water, along with a “sister” robot, Spirit. But those two audience demographics are certainly not the only ones that will find something to like in the film, which approaches its seemingly dry subject with something close to love.

That’s right: love.

The NASA scientists and engineers from the Mars rover team, a parade of whom have been assembled for on-camera reminiscences, speak about Oppy with a kind of parental affection. It helps that the little bot – always anthropomorphized as female – bears a striking resemblance to the adorable fictional rover WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class) from the 2008 Pixar film of the same name, down to the whirs, buzzes and clicks that have been added to CGI animations of Oppy’s adventures on the Red Planet. (Though intended to become obsolescent after 90 days, Oppy somehow survived for 15 years and is still sitting on the Martian surface, inoperative.)

That bittersweet storyline, of a little engine that could, animates “Good Night Oppy” and humanizes its high-tech protagonist, whose twin cameras have the same optical resolution as the human eye and are mounted at a height of 5 feet 2 inches, creating the effect of a human geologist zipping around the alien landscape. It also very clearly animates the film’s interview subjects, some of whom resort to delightfully nerdy humor. “We inched our way down” a crater, one scientist notes, with suspense, before correcting herself to metric: “We centimetered our way down.”

The dad/mom jokes are silly but set the tone here: one of genuine, proud sentiment for this inanimate laboratory on wheels – a prodigy child with many mothers and fathers. Oppy’s unexpected longevity – Spirit petered out several years before her – contributes to a sense of story, of drama. Daily “wake-up” songs, played in the mission control room, only heighten the emotion. One selection, picked at the end of Oppy’s life, was “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

In the end, the rover performed shockingly well, enduring devastating dust storms, freezing Martian winters, “arthritis,” “amnesia” and other nail-biting calamities, to achieve real scientific discoveries – and, yes, that elusive evidence of water. It’s such a feel-good little story that Oppy might instill in you the same warm and fuzzy feeling of gratification that she obviously has in her NASA family.

Good job, kid, you might think to yourself.

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