By M.V. Moorhead
Robots have been a mainstay in movies for most of the past century, and one of the recurrent themes of such tales is the question of whether they are conscious entities, with personality and agency.
Good Night Oppy is the first film I know of on this subject that isn’t science fiction. This documentary chronicles the careers of Opportunity and Spirit, two robotic Mars Rovers launched by NASA in 2003 to explore the Martian surface in search of evidence of that there was once water, and thus possibly life, on the Red Planet.
The project followed a couple of embarrassing and expensive NASA failures, the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998, both of which were ignominously lost, in one mortifying case through human error caused by confusion between American measurement and the metric system. Spirit and Opportunity, by contrast, were overachievers.
Brilliantly designed and engineered, both remained operational for many years longer than their projected mission duration of 90 “sols” (Martian days) and added greatly to human understanding of Martian geology and natural history. But impressive and interesting as the discoveries were, this isn’t really what Good Night Oppy is about.
The dramatic core of the film is about the degree to which the scientists and engineers who built the robots, and who supervised their activities from the Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., anthropomorphized their creations, attributed personalities to them, worried and fretted about them and ultimately mourned them.
Directed by Ryan White and gravely narrated by Angela Bassett, the film alternates beautiful simulations of the endearing robots on the Martian surface, created at Industrial Light & Magic, with actual footage of their controllers monitoring and guiding them back at JPL.
We watch the beautiful nerds age with them, frowning at their struggles and grinning at their triumphs like soccer moms. One of the designers notes that the robot he worked on was “just a box of wires” but admits that it took on a human persona for him. Another notes that the supposedly identical rovers had distinct personalities; that Spirit was “troublesome” while Opportunity was “Little Miss Perfect.”
One of the project leaders says that to compare their relationship to parenting would be to “trivialize parenthood,” but there’s no doubt that the relationship these people feel toward Spirit and “Oppy” is parental. There was something deeply satisfying about watching a bunch of top-flight scientific minds enter matter-of-factly into deep-seated sentimental projection.
After a while it’s hard not to wonder if it is projection, or perhaps a sensitivity to the beginnings of a rudimentary sentience; to wonder if, at some level, human beings are not ourselves boxes of wires that stumbled into selfawareness. It should be noted that the filmmakers do nothing to discourage this idea; they don’t explain, for instance, that the rather Harold- Pinter-ish plainsong sentences from the rovers were human translations of transmitted data, not verbatim statements. Even so, the effect of the film was, for me, not only thought-provoking but deeply emotional.
The soundtrack is also worth mentioning; it draws on the wake-up songs that were played at Mission Control at the beginning of the robot’s shifts.
Selections range from “Roam” by the B-52s to “S.O.S.” by ABBA, and they all seem to take on deeper meanings in context. It would make a pretty good mix-tape album.
Good Night Oppy is rated PG and plays at Harkins Chandler Fashion 20 and Harkins Tempe Marketplace.