Good Night Oppy Telluride Review: A Mission To Mars Becomes A Heartfelt Documentary From Amazon And Amblin

No documentary has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. In fact no documentary has ever been nominated. If ever there was an opportunity to change that statistic, at least in terms of a nomination it could be the remarkable, emotional, and uplifting Good Night Oppy which transcends the genre to become a richly rewarding cinematic experience, kind of a cross between Wall-E and The Martian. this all actually happened, but it is quite unusual in that it is truly feel-good, and it has all been brought to new life in an irresitible new film that in a time of divisiveness and negativity will remind you of the very best of us.

Debuting tonight at the Telluride Film Festival, this Amazon Studios and Amblin Entertainment production is the story of a fantastic voyage, that of two rovers sent to Mars on what was only expected to be a 90 day mission, because that is the usual life span of these rovers, but turned instead into a 15 year adventure, primarily because of the dogged determination and sheer will of a true survivor named Opportunity, a robot who performed wonders well past her expiration date and forged an unforgettable relationship with the humans who built her over several years, shot her and partner Spirit into space on a six month trip to the Red Planet, and in return created a bond that has to be seen to be believed.

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Of course it was seen, not just by the scientists and engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the home base for the mission, but so many who followed the mission for a very long time as it went on from January of 2004 and lasted 14 1/2 years, improbable, magical, mind boggling, and beguiling.

Using closets full of archival footage provided by NASA that had been locked away untouched, plus state-of-the-art photo real special effects and animated recreations of the actual action on Mars thanks to Industrial Light & Magic’s wizards, along with some compelling human interviews with those close to the project, director Ryan White and his filmmaking team have crafted a love letter to space exploration, but also a heartwarming family film with true emotional undercurrents that won’t leave a dry eye in the house by the time it ends.

The idea of the mission was for these rovers, Opportunity and Spirit to land on the surface of Mars and collect geological and atmospheric samples to transmit back to Earth to the eager team, numbering in the thousands over time, who created them for this purpose. What no one figured on was the connection that was also created, from musical wake up calls sent from JPL every morning to following every movement, sometimes perilously, as the rovers do their thing. Even before they set off on the adventure it became clear Opportunity – or Oppy as she was known – a Wall-E doppleganger , was the smartest girl in class, while Spirit was the problem child. That dynamic would play out once they hit Mars, and eventually Spirit’s mojo would wear out, but not for an unheard-of six years. That was nothing compared to Oppy’s endurance in all sorts of weather and unforseen situations as she continued on without her companion.

White, whose previous docus include Ask Dr. Ruth, managed also to comb through the endless boxes of archival footage taken over the years to identify key players who could help tell the story. We are with them over the course of time as they explain it all in very human terms, something that makes this movie so appealing. Chief among them is Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, now gray- haired, but no less enthusiastic as he lives to tell the tale, and Project System Engineer and Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper, among the literally generations of scientists involved over the 15 year period. One of them, Abigail Fraeman was a high school student at the beginning of the mission, and now a lead NASA scientist, and the list goes on an on. The script (by White and Helen Kearns) is tailored to introduce us to the humans who were so integral to the success, their highs and lows over the years, the changing of the guard but never the ultimate goal, all for the love of Oppy.

A special shout out not just to ILM’s visual effects team, but also the editors, Kearns and Rejh Cabrera who did a herculean job making this into a cohesive whole over the course of 105 minutes. There also is a fine score by Blake Neely aided by a great soundtrack of those “wake up” songs. The expert sound design is from Mark Mangini, and Angela Bassett provides the unobtrusive narration. Producers are 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 will start streaming later in the month. It is a space odyssey worth jumping aboard.



























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