The routines and motivational rituals associated with Spirit and Opportunity (Oppy for short) contributed to the sense that these two long-necked metal things roving across the dusty ochre surface of Mars had personalities and could feel pain. Anthropomorphizing—the process of investing non-human things with human traits—is the real subject of this movie, and the focus of most of its drama.
The bulk of the running time consists of news, documentary, and home movie footage taken during the mission, plus interviews with key members of the team, but White and company got a mighty assist from state-of-the-art computer effects, which re-create the Mars mission in a style that recalls “Wall-E,” “The Martian,” and other science-fiction epics. Whenever there’s a cut to a closeup of the camera unit atop one of the rover’s long necks, we can’t help thinking of it as a face, and when one of them struggles to get out of a sandy sinkhole or change course despite a busted wheel, we root for them, just as we might root for Mustafa, Black Beauty, Lassie, R2-D2, or any other movie character who becomes an honorary person by having the audience’s emotions poured into them.
The interviewees describe what they were thinking and feeling as they tried to figure out how to get the robots from one place to another, and regularly maneuver them out of sand traps, or try to figure out a workaround for equipment failures and unforeseen geographical impediments. The story’s timespan is so compressed that occasionally seems to channel Christopher Nolan’s temporally relative “Interstellar.” When the NASA team pauses one of the machines’ journeys to test out solutions on a replica in the facility, the actual process might’ve taken months, but gets compacted into a couple of minutes’ worth of screen time. The passage of time is also explored by juxtaposing present-day interviews and archival footage. Some of the people involved in the mission were in their twenties or thirties back in the aughts and now have children, and/or have experienced decline and loss, and many of them are upfront in describing their time with Spirit and Oppy as the highlight of their lives.
To get across the magnitude of what his subjects saw and did, White pours on the commercial filmmaking devices from start to finish, in the manner of fun-for-all-ages summer blockbusters that used to dominate the box office in the 1980s and ’90s, and that were often produced (and occasionally directed) by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Sure enough, Spielberg’s company Amblin is one of the producers here; the effects are by the company Lucas founded, Industrial Light and Magic; and the score by Blake Neely (“The Pacific,” also an Ambln production) has that John Williams magic-and-wonder vibe.