Parky At the Pictures (4/11/2022)
(Reviews of Hunt; Return to Dust; Neptune Frost; My Neighbour, Adolf; and Good Night Oppy)
`Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown,' Joe Mantell tells Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski's classic 1974 neo-noir. And anyone of the principals could be forgiven for saying something similar about South Korea in 1983 in Lee Jung-jae's directorial debut, Hunt. The star of Squid Game makes quite an impact with this fiendish speculation about the conspiracies swirling around Seoul in the wake of the assassination of President Park Chung-hee on 26 October 1979. There are moments when the action threatens to jump the rails, as brio takes precedence over plausibility. But this remains a rattling yarn that's as slick as it is audacious.
Four years after Korean Central Intelligence Agency chief Kim Jae-gyu had shot the dictatorial Park, angry protesters await the South Korean president outside the White House. KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho (Lee Jung-jae) resents the fact that Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) has been brought in to supervise him and has little reason to thank him after he shoots a potential assassin who had taken him hostage during a theatre shootout.
Back in Seoul, Park is angry with student ward Choo Yoo-jeong (Go Yoon-jung) for getting involved with the demonstrating students. But he has more to worry about when the KCIA director informs him that a North Korean spy has infiltrated the agency using the codename, Donglim. He orders Park and Kim to co-operate, but there has been antipathy between them since Kim interrogated Park (and damaged nerves in his hand) following the 1979 shooting.
On hearing that a North Korean nuclear scientist is ready to defect with key information, Park and Kim plan a joint operation in Tokyo. But it backfires and troops are lost in an ambush. Moreover, Agent Yang (Jung Man-sik) tries to make a name for himself by demanding the professor exposes Donglim before offering him sanctuary and the boffin perishes in a gun battle with North Korean agents, with Park and Kim powerless to prevent the carnage. The director demands they resign, but Park turns the tables by producing evidence of his corruption and they stay on the case.
Fresh from the military, Director Ahn (Kim Jong-soo) takes the helm and Kim has bad memories of their previous time together. Nevertheless, he agrees to interrogate Park's team to uncover Donglim and the pair are about to come to blows when a North Korean pilot defects during an airspace emergency. Lieutenant Lee (Hwang Jung-min) is cocky, but Kim feels he's a plant because his speech seems so rehearsed. However, he presents them with a code cipher that seems genuine.
Meanwhile, Ahn is leaning on Kim and assistant Jang Cheol-seong (Heo Sung-tae) to identify Donglim. Park also details Bang Joo-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin) to investigate the Domestic unit and she finds links connecting Kim with the Juniper Corporation. Aware that Kim is preparing to delve into his own past, Park orders a raid on the company and detains CEO Choi (Yoo Jae-myung). As Kim is involved in a plot to assassinate the president, he is told by his confreres to eliminate Choi so that he doesn't blab under torture. But Kim is so furious that Park is on to him that he orders 24/7 surveillance to find something equally incriminating about him.
He snatches Choo and accuses her of being a sleeper agent for Pyongyang. Park watches her being brutalised before intervening and accuses Kim of exploiting her as revenge for the Juniper raid. However, they are interrupted by news Yang has come out of his coma and can reveal Donglim's identity. However, he's killed by a rooftop sniper while Domestic and Foreign agents are jostling in the hospital corridor.
Following a fist fight with Park at Ahn's headquarters, Kim is asked by Washington to drop his plot to kill the president (codenamed `Operation Peter Hunt') because a stable regime suits them. He is furious and reminds the American agent (Derek Chouinard) of the crimes committed against the people since 1979. Meanwhile, Bang discovers that Park is Donglim during a check on diplomatic passports and one of Kim's agents overhears Park killing Bang and calling his handlers before fleeing.
Kim's crew follow him and rescue him from a savage interrogation while chained one-handed to the ceiling. He is informed that the leadership has changed its mind about infiltration and now favours invasion to being about a reunification of the peninsula. Appalled that the North is prepared to sacrifice six million people, Park protests. But he is rescued by Kim's intervention and the destruction of some incriminating documents. In return, Kim demands access to CEO Choi in order to protect his own conspiracy and kills him with an electro-shock machine.
Kim insists on Park accompanying him to Bangkok, where an attempt will be made on the president. Park knows what the North has planned and thwarts Kim's bid after a frantic shootout that culminates in an explosion set off by a Pyongyang agent. Kim is killed, but the president escapes and Park returns home. He has sent Choo to a monastery in the south and plans to join her before leaving Korea. Having paid his respects to Kim's family, he sets off along a coastal road. However, he is ambushed by North Korean agents, one of whom is Choo. She can't bring herself to fire and sits in the passenger seat, as Park offers her a passport for a new life before dying. Choo gets out of the car and shots are heard, but we don't get to see who fired them.
Artfully stitched together by Lee Jung-jae and co-scribe Jo Seung-Hee, this is a terrifically twisting tale that forces the audience to pay close attention and reassess what it thinks it knows every other scene. It's given credence by references to such historical events as the Gwangju Uprising, the defection of North Korean pilot Lee Ung-pyeong, and the assassination attempt on President Chun Doo-hwan in Myanmar in 1983. But foreknowledge of Korean history is not required in order to be swept along by this raging tide of gleefully convoluted events.
Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung make splendid adversaries and it's only a shame that their corridor punch-up doesn't descend into something similar to the donnybrook between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952). Such is the focus on their steely resolve to protect their respective missions that their superiors and underlings wind up being ciphers. Nevertheless, the ensemble commitment adds to the bruising intensity of the action, although a little more suspenseful intrigue might not have gone amiss amidst the slickly staged bullet ballets, which stunt co-ordinator and action director Heo Myeong-Haeng ensures lean more towards Michael Mann than John Woo.
Lee directs with zest and lashings of bleak humour, as he pulls us into the maelstrom. Lee Mo-gee's photography and Kim Sang-beom's editing are as bullish as Cho Young-wuk's score, with the nocturnal sequences bearing all the hallmarks of classic K-noir. The periodic flashbacks are a bit clumsy, while the slender political subtext gets lost amidst the mayhem. But this makes for corking entertainment that suggests we'll be seeing more of Lee Jung-jae the director in the future.
RETURN TO DUST.
Having already set The Old Donkey (2010) and Fly With the Crane (2012) in the countryside, Li Ruijun returns to his native Gansu for Return to Dust. Exploring the depopulation of rural areas and the impact the drift to the towns is having on the Chinese landscape, this is also a poignant study of companionship that aroused a degree of controversy when the ending was amended at the iniststence of the censors.
Living near Gaotai close to the border with Inner Mongolia, Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin) and Guiying Cao (Hai Qing) are forced to marry by their families. He is an illiterate farmer devoted to his donkey, while she has a limp and a bladder problem. On their first night together, Guiying wets the bed and Youtie isn't sure how to respond. Nevertheless, he accepts their lot and takes her into the sandy wilderness to introduce her to his ancestors in a paper-burning ceremony.
As they're such a taciturn pair, they are teased by their neighbours. But Youtie comes to prominence because he shares the same rare bloody type as the area boss, Zhang Yongfu, who keeps everyone in work. Intimidated by the prospect of visiting a hospital, Youtie asks if he can donate blood at the town clinic and Guiying clings to his side, as she is such a homebody. He covers her with his overcoat when she has an accident and buys her a coat of her own when he carries some of Zhang's nephew's furniture to town on his donkey cart.
Returning late, Youtie is touched to find Guiying waiting on the road with a flask of hot tea that she has warmed up twice because she's been waiting so long. He urges her to warm her hands and hop on to the cart, but she opts to walk because she doesn't want to impose on the donkey after it's had such a long journey.
They work hard on an implacable piece of land, with Guiying having to sit on the simple wooden plough to ensure it indents the soil. Borrowing some eggs from the neighbour whose TV they watch, they make an incubator from a lightbulb and a cardboard box and Guiying is charmed by the speckled light bouncing off the walls of their hut. However, they are forced to find a new home, when owner Ma Youwen returns from his job in Dongguan to claim the 15,000 yuan that is being offered for the demolition of unsightly buildings.
Collecting timbers for future use, they move into another abandoned domicile and make it cosy. They gaze into the incubator and dream of having laying hens, but Guiying is dispirited by the wheat crop struggling to take root and Youtie has to reassure her that dead shoots fertilise the others because everything has its purpose in life. He's just as philosophical when he drops a steamed bun and insists it's fine to eat because the earth would never do anything to harm him.
Driven into town at regular intervals to give blood, Youtie is glad to have Guiying's company. She asks the doctor to take her blood, instead. Even the locals notice how close the couple has become, as they carry water from the lake to make mud bricks in order to build a place of their own. They also fashion a wicket pen for their hens and are pleased that the swallow that had nested in their old home has followed them.
When a storm breaks, they rush into the night to cover the bricks and laugh when they slip in the mud. Next morning, Guiying makes a straw donkey and tells Youtie that she knew she was marrying a good man when she saw him consoling the donkey after his brother had beaten it. She knew life couldn't get any worse, living in a shed in the yard and she has been proved right. As it's so hot, they sleep on the roof that night and Guiying is moved when Youtie ties her to his belt, so she can't roll off in the night.
As the corn starts to rise, work begins on the house, with Guiying hauling cement and Youtie laying bricks. They enjoy a fish caught in the river and reminisce about a shared kindness to a mumbling man who had been despised by the other villagers. When he next gives blood, Youtie asks about payments for his neighbours, who are struggling to make ends meet and Zhang's nephew tells him to look after himself before anyone else.
While gathering the harvest, Youtie gets cross with Guiying when she proves too weak to pitchfork bales on to the cart. He pushes her over and immediately regrets his action, but can't bring himself to apologise. Instead, he claims to have loaded the cart so badly that she needs to ride on top to balance it. As they thresh together, he makes a mark on the back of her hand with a grain of wheat and says he'll always be able to find her from now on. However, she gets wheat rash and he has to bathe her in the village irrigation canal and she is scared by the speed of the current.
Shortly afterwards, the owner of their squat returns and orders them to leave so he can demolish and collect his cash. Youtie chases the swallows away to protect them and returns for the next. He and Guiying move into their own house and they have just taken delivery of some piglets when a nephew arrives to say that he has applied for an apartment in town on Youtie's behalf. He doesn't want to leave and starts ploughing and sewing for the next harvest. He jokes with Guiying about her footprints in the soil and says a peasant is tied to the land that feeds him.
Their visit to the apartment is filmed for propaganda purposes, but Youtie demands to know where he can keep his animals. Soon afterwards, Guiying develops a fever and he orders her to bed. He poaches the first egg laid by their hens and she curses her luck to fall ill for the first time in her life when she's happy.
Youtie collects the corn crop and is crossing the village when he learns that Guiying has drowned in the irrigation canal. She had come to bring him buns and toppled in during a dizzy fit. Clearly no one had jumped in to rescue her and Youtie is crushed. He takes down their `double happiness' wedding banner from the wall and replaces it with a black-edged photo of Guiying that had been taken on the day they married. Sobbing, he presses grains into the webbing of her thumb so he can find her again on the other side. As he buries her, Youtie burns the television set he had bought her as a surprise.
Having collected the last of his crops, Youtie frees his donkey and climbs a dune so that it wanders away. He is cheated by Zhang's nephew when he sells up, but seems unconcerned, as he has enough to pay his debts. Returning home, he eats an egg and lies down with his pillow beside the fire, clutching the straw donkey. The camera blurs on the light coming through the window before a coda shows the donkey returning to house in time to see it bulldozed and Yang's nephew collect the 15,000 yuan. Despite the fact no one seems to be speaking, we hear that Youtie has gone to start his new life in the town.
This is clearly a dubbed line added at the insistence of the censor to negate the impression that Youtie would rather join Guiying than move into a soulless apartment. It's a shame that the distributors didn't decide to remove it for the UK release, so that their version came closer to Li Ruijun's original intentions. But viewers should ignore it and allow Youtie to follow his heart.
He is poignantly played by farmer and occasional actor Wu Renlin, whose weathered features remain stoically impassive in bad times and good. Actress Hai Qing had to learn farming techniques and master the local dialect to play Guiying, who has been downtrodden for so long that she daren't trust herself to exhibit an emotion. Nevertheless, her growing affection for Youtie is beautifully conveyed by simple confidences and gentle gestures that always feel authentic rather than twee. Even their doting on the donkey eschews sentimentality and the creature's reappearance just as all evidence of Youtie and Guiying's life together is being levelled says more about the callousness of the community and the inhumanity of the state than any fiery tirade.
Li focusses on the harshness of rural existence and the duplicity of the middle-classes. Yet he also notes the dignity of labour and the integrity of self-sustainability, as these two discarded souls find a reason to live through each other. Cinematographer Wang Weihua captures the unforgiving nature of the terrain and the effects that depopulation are having on both settlements and the landscape. But, again, the message is left to float on the strains of Peyman Yazdanian's deft score, which reinforces the film's air of restrained desolation that keeps romanticised melodramatics at bay.
Not everyone is going to be enthused by the prospect of something that bills itself as a queer Afrofuturist science fiction musical. Before you turn your back entirely, however, note the reassuring presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda among the executive producers and give Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's Neptune Frost a try. It will prove a challenge, but this visually striking study of gender fluidity, exploitation, dreams, conflict, and self-realisation more than repays the effort.
Fleeing his village in Rwanda after the pastor tried to touch them up after their aunt's funeral, Neptune (Elvis `Bobo' Ngabo) has a dream beneath a tree about fire in the sky. Singing on the road about there being no turning back, Neptune takes a boat across a lake. Fishing into their bag, they find a pair of high-heeled shoes and put them on. Drawn into a village, Neptune is watching some women dance when they are struck by a passing vehicle. While in a daze, Neptune (Cheryl Isheja) undergoes a transformation and continues on their journey.
Meanwhile, Matalusa (Bertrand `Kaya Free' Ninteretse) has fled a coltan mine after his brother was struck dead by an overseer. He has been advised by voices in a dream to `hack' and he seeks the advice of Memory (Eliane Umuhire). Neptune also encounters a new acquaintance, Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), who meets them in a bar and makes a clumsy seduction bid that prompts Neptune to run away.
Neptune meets a friend of their mother, while Matalusa hooks up with Psychology (Trésor Niyongabo) and some of his fellow miners. He learns that `Unanimous Goldmine' is the greeting of the resource rich and that it elevates the vibration of metallic justice to the threshold of planetary sustenance. Neptune is introduced to Memory and a song of defiance is sung that has such an impact on Neptune that they claim to have been born in their 23rd year.
By their combined power, Neptune and Matalusa are able to hack the world from the camp Elohel (Rebecca Uwamahoro) had dubbed Martyr Loser Kingdom. Memory strokes a bird named Frost and wonders if they now have a chance to influence the world for good, but Neptune sings a warning about ignorance online. Everyone goes into a trance and Matalusa roars out a song (`Fuck Mr Google') decrying the exploitation of the marginalised and the greed of the big corporations controlling the world's wealth and resources.
They realise they have a chance to change things, but Memory urges caution when Psychology suggests that they use their following online to expose injustice and crash the systems that oppress them. However, they are put on the defensive when a soldier arrives. Binya (Natacha Muziramakenga) reassures them that he is her brother, Potolo (Eric `1Key' Ngangare), and that he will not betray them. She urges them to put their faith in the Motherboard. But Neptune has their doubts and wanders out of Digitalia just as it is attacked from the air.
Drones fly over in the darkness to confirm the strike. But Neptune remains alive and they are backed by chanting drummers, as they warn that they are the Martyr Loser King and that no matter how many times the Authority chops they necks of those they don't think matter, they will continue to burn brightly like candles.
There is absolutely no guarantee that the above will match the intentions of the makers, but it's an honest attempt to fathom what is going on beneath the dense layers of allegory, stylisation, and obfuscation. Doubtless those clever people who talk loudly in restaurants to which Monty Python referred will have a much firmer grip. But where's the fun of a puzzle like this if you understood everything?
In reworking a graphic novel and musical for the screen, American slam poet-composer Saul Williams and his Rwandan co-director-cum- cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman may well have intended this to be as poetically gnomic as possible. From the start, this is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, if only because the subtitles are so rubbish. Why do they insist on using unedged white lettering in films with so many bright backgrounds? Bring back the black dialogue boxes and sod those precious film-makers who complain about their imagery being obscured. Surely it's better that viewers understand what's going on? Besides, the easier the subtitles are to read, the less time we need to spend deciphering them and missing the pretty pictures.
Hitting their targets with punkish precision, Williams and Uzeyman coax captivating performances out of their leads, with Cheryl Isheja (and her amazing eyes) and Bertrand `Kaya Free' Ninteretse standing out, although every singer nails their song. The iconoclasm on view here should give Suella Braverman nightmares, as she continues to pine for the first flight to Kigli of her discarded asylum seekers. The film has much to say about the plight of the ignored and the Home Secretary would be wise to heed Innocent's adage: `One who swallows a whole coconut trusts his anus.'
MY NEIGHBOUR, ADOLF.
Cult German actor Udo Kier has played Adolf Hitler on a number of occasions. He dons drag to avoid attention in London in Graham Rose's short, Mrs Meitlemeihr (2002), while he plays a Moon Führer in Timo Vuorensola's Iron Sky (2012) and Iron Sky: The Coming Race (2019). He will soon be seen facing trial in seven episodes of David Weil's Amazon series, Hunters (2022). So, it comes as no surprise to find Kier being suspected of being a fugitive war criminal in Leon Prudovsky's My Neigbour, Adolf.
Having lost his entire family in the Holocaust, Malek Polsky (David Hayman) now lives in an unnamed South American country. It's 1960, but Polsky is more interested in the black roses that remind him of his beloved wife than headlines about Adolf Eichman's arrest in Argentina. However, he begins taking notice when officious lawyer Frau Kaltenbrunner (Olivia Silhavy) informs him that an important man will be moving into the house beside his own in the middle of nowhere.
Snooping from his window, Polsky watches Herman Herzog (Udo Kier) pottering in the garden with his German Shepherd, Wolfie. He resents this trespasser into his solitude, but he is furious when Wolfie defecates on the rose bush and the blooms begin to wilt. Storming next door, he demands redress. But, when he sees the heavily bearded Herzog's eyes through the slot in his front gate, Polsky becomes convinced that his new neighbour is Adolf Hitler.
When Kaltenbrunner declares that the rose bush should be on Herzog's side of the fence, Polsky snaps. Taking the bus to the nearest town, he makes his claim to an intelligence officer (Kineret Peled) at the Israeli embassy. As he had sat opposite Hitler at a chess tournament in Berlin in 1934, he swears he would recognise his eyes anywhere. But the officer merely reminds him that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker at the end of the Second World War and cannot possibly be annoying him 15 years later.
Buying books and a camera, Polsky sets out to find proof of Herzog's true identity. He discovers that he is left handed and an amateur painter. Moreover, he appears to share Hitler's habit of losing his temper, although Polsky can find no way of gleaning how many testicles Herzog has. While attempting to water the roses from a ladder, Polsky catches Herzog's attention and asks him to write a letter for the tax office confirming that he has annexed part of his garden.
Discovering Herzog's love of chess, Polsky offers him a game in return for his letter. However, he is frustrated when Herzog insists on typing it. But, while inside his house, Polsky does discover a locked box in his closet and paintings on the wall that resemble those in his books on Hitler. He breaks in to steal one and accidentally kills Wolfie. Thinking his dog has been hit by a passing car, Herzog is distraught and struggles to form a bond with his new pet, who takes a shine to Polsky.
During a discussion about Kaltenbrunner's comeliness, Herzog paints Polsky's portrait. They play chess again and Polsky is surprised when Herzog accepts a drink and throws up over his shirt. As they chat, Herzog starts to confide in Polsky, but they are interrupted by visitors and Polsky is appalled when one of them salutes his neighbour and calls him `Führer'.
Eager to present his new findings at the embassy, Polsky buses into town. But no one believes his testimony and he returns home feeling patronised. In his absence, however, Herzog discovers that Polsky has been spying on him and they fight in the road. Herzog denies having killed Polsky's family and laments that he doesn't want to be the Führer any longer.
Polsky chases him into the house and discovers that Herzog is an actor who had spent years as Hitler's double because of their close resemblance. He explains how he had been taken away from his loved ones and forced to give up meat and alcohol, while learning to imitate Hitler, right down to his painting style. Convinced of the truth when Herzog drops his pants, Polsky hears how Herzog has been exploiting his past by duping die-hard Nazis into paying through the nose for audiences. Certain that Herzog is also a victim, Polsky tips him off that Mossad is on his tail. He gets to keep his dog, as he wishes Herzog happiness in his new refuge, and even gives him some roses with which to court Frau Kaltenbrunner.
Ill-judged from the outset and ponderously handled throughout, this tonally awkward comedy lacks the edge to make it anything more than a maudlin misfire. David Hayman and Udo Kier do well enough, but their characters are weighed down by the contrivance of a situation that is only made more specious by the big reveal. Returning to features for the first time since debuting with Five Hours to Paris (2013), Russian-born, Israeli-based Leon Prudovsky and co-scenarist Dmitry Malinsky too often settle for easy laughs, such as the Lebensraum incident, Mossad's blasé attitude towards Nazi hunting, and the old rumour about Hitler only having one ball. But they fail utterly to equate one man's decade of suffering with the other's irreparable loss.
Juan Carlos Acevedo's production design is suitably spartan, while cinematographer Radek Ladczuk douses the isolated dwellings in a murky light that contrasts with the sunnier aspect in the town. But the picture's lack of finesse is reinforced by Lukasz Targosz's score, which leaves the viewer in no doubt how to respond to each scene.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY.
Fans of The Big Bang Theory (2007-19) will remember how Howard Wolowitz crashed a Mars Rover while trying to seduce Dr Stephanie Barnett in an episode entitled, `The Lizard-Spock Expansion'. He would eventually go into space for NASA, as a payload engineer. Mercifully, however, he was kept away from Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers that had been sent to the Red Planet in 2003 to search for signs of life. They were expected to operate for around 90 days. But they had other ideas, as Ryan White reveals in Good Night Oppy.
NASA monitored the rovers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Mission manager Jennifer Trosper, lead systems engineer Rob Manning, rover driver Ashley Stroupe, principal scientist Steve Squyres introduce themselves and the purpose of the probe to Mars. Following on from the two Viking expeditions in the 1970s, they were eager to find water sources and discover whether these could ever have supported life.
Geologist Squyres had the idea of the solar-powered rovers and he spent a decade putting proposals to NASA. When one was accepted, the JPL team had two years to build and test Spirit and Opportunity and get them aboard a rocket within the narrow launch window. Star Trek fan Kobie Boykins was brought in as a mechanical engineer, alongside Ghanaian robotics engineer Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu. They recall how each 5ft 2in rovers was anthropomorphised during construction and always referred to as `she' by the team. Camera operations engineer Doug Ellison says it was easy for a box of wires to become a cute robot, although Opportunity was considered Little Miss Perfect, as she passed her tests with flying colours, while Spirit's performance was patchy.
As time elapsed, problems also arose with the parachutes to land the rovers and the airbags to protect them on impact. But launch date arrived and Spirit left from the Kennedy Space Centre three weeks before Opportunity on 10 June and 7 July 2003. The team felt like they were sending their children into the unknown and there was a minor crisis when solar flares corrupted the computer programmes during the six-and-a-half-month flight. Fortunately rebooting was successful and NASA held its breath for the landings on either side of the planet, as its previous two missions had gone wrong. Adding to the anxiety of what is called `the Six Minutes of Terror' was a 10-minute communication delay and a long wait before Spirit sent a signal.
On 4 January 2004, however, the signal came and Sol 1 began (with Angela Bassett narrating Opportunity's journal entries). Deputy project scientist Abigail Fraeman was still at high school on that date, but she was in Mission Control to witness the euphoric relief (along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Gore). The first images brought untold excitement, as bedrock was detected, which could allow insights into the planet's building blocks. But sleep came first, as Earth and Mars days don't coincide and the JPL team had to learn to exist on a new time cycle.
Steppenwolf's `Born to Be Wild' was the first wake-up song played to Spirit in Gusev Crater. Opportunity found herself in Eagle Crater in the Meridiani Platum region and soon found evidence of haematites that suggested the presence of liquid. However, it wasn't water as we know it and these `Martian blueberries' needed pondering before anything could be deduced.
By Sol 57, Spirit is on a road trip and rover driver Vandi Verma recalls the pressure, as the robots were only supposed to have a 90-day shelf life. She was pregnant with twins during this period and jokes that she can never pick a favourite. But everyone's attention was focussed on Spirit after she had a memory malfunction after touching a rock. After a couple of day's of trying to reboot (during which one wake-up song was Abba's `SOS'), she responded as Mission Control was about to send a major shut down message.
Winds cleaned the solar panels that had been clogging with red dust and champagne corks popped on Sol 91, as the mission had found some borrowed time. So, Spirit was sent into the Columbia Hills for water, while Opportunity headed for Endurance Crater to find bedrock. Tests were done on Earth with a model to see if she could cope with such steep slopes before the engineers agreed to let Opportunity descend. She started sliding towards a boulder, but her autonomous system kicked in and slowed her centimetres from a crash.
Abandoning Endurance, Squyres set his sights on a distant crater named Victoria, which was a two-year trek at Opportunity's speed. By Sol 445, she had seemingly made good progress (to `Walking on Sunshine' by Katrina and the Waves). However, it was discovered that her wheels had been stuck in fine sand and she was digging herself deeper while sending data she was travelling. Tests at JPL could only come up with a last ditch reverse thrust. But it worked and Oppy was free to roam again, after 40 sols in a rut.
By this time, Spirit had damaged a front wheel and was having to go backwards to stay straight. She was also having to tilt towards the Sun to keep her temperature up during a long Martian winter. On Sol 1226, Opportunity was hit by a dust storm and she was put on autonomous shut down to protect herself. When she responded to George Harrison's `Here Comes the Sun', there was a sense that these little machines were invincible and the search for water continued.
With the public already investing in the plucky duo, they became headline news when Spirit broke another wheel and got stuck on Sol 1900. Winter was approaching and there were concerns she wouldn't survive. On 25 May 2011, NASA announced the end of Spirit's mission and Trosper pays tribute to her doughtiness in tough terrain in hoping she sleeps well.
Many of the original team had moved on and newcomers included flight director Bekah Sosland-Siegfriedt and planetary project engineer Moogega Cooper, who had been kids when the mission had started. They were part of steering Opportunity towards Endeavour Crater, which was years away from Victoria. She was stalled for a couple of days after being hit by lightning, but trundled on towards the crater's newly named Spirit Point.
Age was catching up, however, with the team calling the malfunction in her arm `arthritis', while Bekah compares her memory loss to her grandmother's Alzheimer's. Efforts were made to keep Opportunity awake so she could remember to transmit her data, but many daily reports were lost. Yet she reached Endeavour after nine years and began exploring its rocks.
She discovered that drinkable neutral water had once existed on the Martian surface that could possibly have sustained ancient microbial life. Inching her way across the crater, Opportunity gathered information over the next four years that allowed scientists to deduce that Mars once had oceans and start to understand why they disappeared - and whether humanity was pushing Earth towards a similar fate.
On Sol 5000, Opportunity took a selfie and returned lots of tiny monochrome images that the engineering team pieced together. However, more peril lay around the corner with a dust storm closing in. She reported low battery and a lack of light on Sol 5111, but NASA retained hope she could power down and battle through. The wake-up song had rather gone into abeyance, but Wham's `Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go' was blasted out. After over six months of silence, the team decided to give her a last chance to respond. On Sol 5352, everyone gathered in the Dark Room and Squyres was asked to pick the final wake-up song. He chose Billie Holiday's `I'll Be Seeing You' to say goodbye to Oppy, but also to the colleagues who had also come to love `the Lucky Rover'.
Standing on the shoulders of her grandmothers is Perseverance, who was launched in July 2020. No doubt, her time in the documentary spotlight will come and goodness knows what digital imagineers will be able to do with the images and data she returns. NASA's in-house footage is fascinating, but Industrial Light & Magic does a pretty amazing job with the material provided by Spirit and Opportunity in creating both the landscapes in which the rovers operated and simulations of the journeys they made and the hardships they endured. Mark Mangini's sound design is also key.
Anyone who became hooked on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in Emer Reynolds's The Farthest (2017) will find themselves falling all over again. Surely no one can remain dry eyed once Blake Neely's orchestral score starts swelling, even those who might quibble that this is less a scientific study than a human interest story. But this is to forget that those involved in the project didn't just contribute their intellect. They invested a little bit of themselves in the sentient mechanical marvels who gave their all so that everyone might boldly go.