Review: Good Night Oppy


“Good Night Oppy” is a surprisingly-entertaining film about exploration on Mars and the hunt for water. It won the 2022 Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards for best director, best science/nature documentary, best narration, best score, and best overall documentary. It also has a 100 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

On Dec. 15, 2022, Variety magazine ranked it as the number two contender for the Best Documentary Oscar. But on Dec. 21, 2022, when the top 15 Oscar nominations for Best Doc were revealed, “Good Night Oppy” was not on the list. I have scoured sources to find out why every day since.

The production of “Good Night Oppy” is an elegant feat of scientific information, astrophysical experience and pure computer-generated-image (CGI) magic. Ryan White, award-winning documentary producer and director, wrote the delightful script with Helen Kearns. Angela Bassett provides a warm, humanizing narration.

Opportunity, known affectionately as Oppy, was a rover sent to Mars on June 10, 2003. It was supposed to do some primitive traveling and send back pictures to earth for a maximum of three months. Four years earlier two other rovers had been lost early on Mars. One burned up in the atmosphere and the other on the surface. Oppy’s mission was not only for redemption but to see if there is a history of water on Mars.

All along, I was wondering how we were seeing this rover’s maneuvering when no exterior camera was hanging out on Mars. While we can see the actual footage Oppy sent back to NASA, it’s only on his last day that a NASA employee asks him to take a selfie. This means some of the documentary was fashioned with miraculous NASA magic using coordinates and pictures of what Oppy looked like on earth combined with the pictures the rover sent back to earth. It ended up being a visual effects, sound and camera team of 42 that brought Oppy to life for this film.

“Flee,” nominated for last year’s Best Doc Oscar, was done in animation to protect the principle characters. So to incorporate CGI to recreate a facsimile of Oppy’s adventures, would not violate the Oscar rules. But I’m still baffled about why “Good Night Oppy” has been snubbed.

Interspersed throughout the film are interviews with the NASA crew involved in Oppy’s Mars adventure. One was Rob Manning, coincidentally a graduate of my alma mater, Whitman College. Manning was the chief engineer of the Mars rover and he had coincidentally given my alumni class an hour Zoom presentation on his work. He was an enthusiastic master of explaining the technical aspects of the rover system and the complicated nature of its entry, descent and landing. He was also the master explainer in the film, making the seemingly impossible totally understandable, while adding aspects of suspense and adventure.

Steve Squyres, the principle scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER), used to do geologic fieldwork. “There weren’t new places to discover – but then I looked down on Mars … and had no idea what I was looking at. No one did … If we could get a Rover down on Mars’ surface we might find out the truth about Martian history … After 10 years of writing proposals we got it.” Their principle goal was to discover if there was a history of water on the planet. If so, then they predicted they could find life or a history of it.

It was up to Manning to put the kind of vehicle together that Squyres imagined. They presented a proposal to NASA and Oppy and a twin, Spirit, were born.

Spirit launched on June 10, 2003, and Opportunity took off on July 7. Expected to last only three months, they both defied expectations and send back their adventures and rock analysis for years.


Director: Ryan White
Writers: Helen Kearns and Ryan White
Producers: Brandon Carroll, Just Falvey, Daryl Frank, Matthew Goldberg, Jessica Hargrave, Stephen Neely and Ryan White
Narrator: Angela Bassett
Cinematographers: John Beck-Hofmann and David Paul Jacobson
Editors: Rejh Cabrera and Helen Kearns and Team of 8
Music: Blake Neely
Visual Effects: Team of 26
Sound: Team of 8
Camera and Electrical: Team of 8

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