For a movie about a space mission — a real one, not the kind Akshay Kumar would oversee — the new documentary Good Night Oppy treats the subject of science as a teenager with an artistic bent would. It finds meaning in ones and zeroes, it romanticises the natural phenomenon of rusting, and philosophises about a failed virtual connection. More than a science documentary, Good Night Oppy is an elegiac biopic; one that just happens to be about a robot.
The film begins in the early 2000s, when NASA was putting together a new mission to Mars in the hope of finding water, and subsequently life. We watch as a crack team of scientists both young and old get together to create two sister robots. They name them Spirit and Opportunity. Almost immediately, the scientists talk about the robots as if they were humans. They fondly refer to Opportunity as ‘Oppy’, which is only the beginning of its anthropomorphisation. “She has a mind of her own,” one person says of ‘her’. When Oppy malfunctions during an experiment, another scientist says that she ‘needs to be given love.’ It’s all very cute, of course; and deliberate.
Directed by Ryan White, who previously helmed a handful of excellent documentaries about a diverse slate of subjects — true crime, gay rights, and North Korean spies — Good Night Oppy can best be described as a real-life Pixar movie. Co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and featuring gorgeous visual effects by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, the film combines archival footage with sweeping CGI landscapes of Mars.
Blake Neely could very well have hacked into John Williams’ hard drive while composing the score; such are the tonal similarities. I could have sworn, at one point, that I heard the opening notes of Williams’ Jurassic Park theme. But like the rest of the movie, the music, too, is an approximation of the warm-hearted nostalgia that White is selling. Older audiences might find this a bit too saccharine, but I’d imagine that children, particularly the more curious ones, might be inspired by the film’s sentimental view of science and exploration.
The film’s biggest achievement, however, is humanising the robots, thanks in no small part to the adoration with which the scientists speak about them. The mood in mission control after the rovers land safely on Mars isn’t unlike what parents would feel after the birth of a healthy child. It’s ecstasy mixed with relief. Tears flow then, as they’ll flow in the future, at several important junctures in Oppy’s life.
But Oppy wasn’t an ordinary child; it was was terminally ill, born with a hole in its heart, and destined to die in three months. Ultimately, it ended up living, quite miraculously, for 15 years. The scientists who ‘birthed’ it watched it grow from a nimble young thing to a creaky old relic with ‘arthritis’ in its metallic arms. Like R2-D2 or BB-8, Oppy quickly endears itself to the audience, even if it is more like the melancholic Wall-E in terms of personality. The more sensitive viewers, on the other hand, might even equate its selfless (and sacrificial) existence with the soviet dog Laika. Neither Spirit nor Oppy were ever meant to return.
The movie flirts, albeit briefly, with the metaphysical as well. While Oppy spends over 5000 solitary ‘sols (days)’ on Mars, the science (and the scientists) back on Earth evolve. Technology that was cutting-edge in 2003 becomes virtually obsolete by 2020. By the end of its life, Oppy was still taking over a minute to click a single photograph. And the same people who’d wait patiently for visuals two decades ago find themselves tapping their watches as Oppy glacially goes about taking a selfie. Time is relative. Life is fleeting. But connections are eternal. These are the thoughts that Good Night Oppy leaves you with.
Good Night Oppy
Director – Ryan White
Cast – Angela Bassett
Rating – 3.5/5