The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

[18 December 2008]

By Michael Franco

As a longtime Flaming Lips fan and resident of their hometown, Oklahoma City, I was elated when I first heard they were making a movie back in 2001.  When I heard that it would be called Christmas on Mars, and that frontman Wayne Coyne would portray an alien, and that the Lips would film the project in their backyard, I was even more excited.  Many nights I drove by Coyne’s compound (he owns several homes located next to one another in northwest OKC) hoping to catch a glimpse of the spaceship they were busy constructing in the backyard.  Aliens?  Santa Claus?  A spaceship?  The Flaming Lips?  It had to be brilliant.

Eventually, though, my excitement turned to worry as year after year passed and the movie never came out.  As the rumors flew that such-and-such actor or actress made a pilgrimage to OKC to score a cameo in the movie, I grew even more worried.  Was this film that initially sounded like a brilliant idea being hijacked by indie hipsters who just wanted to boost their cred by collaborating with the Lips?  Did the Lips’ enthusiasm lead them into a project that ultimately proved too much to bring to fruition?  When the film finally came out, would it be a bloated, pretentious, totally incoherent mess that marred the artistic brilliance of the Lips’ career?

Finally, seven years later, Christmas on Mars is here, and I’m thankful to say that it not only upholds, but it also expands the Lips aesthetic.  Combining the band’s penchant for the fantastical with the existential, the film also ties together all the bizarre and seemingly random topical symbolism of the Lips’ career into one unified—though no doubt eccentric—narrative.  More importantly, Christmas on Mars is an actual film, not a foolish whim conceived in excitement but only finished out of obligation.

Any critique of this film must begin with its story, and while some have criticized the film for being weak on narrative structure or plot, that’s not a valid point.  The plot, in fact, is simple: faced with unbearable isolation and the reality of impending death, the passengers of a spaceship stranded on Mars struggle to extend their lives, make meaning of their suffering, and find a reason for hope.  Sound familiar… like your life, perhaps?  Yep, Christmas on Mars is an old fashioned allegory, clear in message and heavy on symbolism.

And yet, for those approaching this film from a strict film criticism standpoint, there are some obvious targets to criticize here.  The acting, for one, borders on the campy, and this is often because the dialogue is forced and unnatural.  Coyne admits in the DVD extras that the dialogue came as an afterthought to the overall concept and tone, and there’s no doubt that the overarching idea is sometimes more brilliant than its execution.  Even so, since most of the characters in the film are suffering from some degree of psychosis caused by isolation and stress, the awkward dialogue somehow seems fitting.  After all, wouldn’t a person bordering on mental collapse, struggling to focus on the moment, sound strained and deliberate?

The film’s influences are also so obvious that it risks seeming like mere pastiche.  Coyne admits that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lynch’s Eraserhead, and The Wizard of Oz all shaped the film, and if you combined those three films, you would indeed get something close to Christmas on Mars.  Combining the eerily clinical and detached set design of the first film, the visual absurdity of the second, and the childlike wonder of the third, Christmas on Mars is still, however, its own film.

This unlikely feat is largely because the Lips have always explored the same themes: life and death, the supernatural, the taboo, and the downright oddball.  Think back through the song titles from the Lips’ albums: “Jesus Shooting Heroin”, “Everything’s Explodin’”, “The Magician vs. the Headache”, “Waitin’ for a Superman”, “In the Morning of the Magicians”, “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, and so on.  Yes, Coyne has always been obsessed with all things strange, mythical, metaphysical, and forbidden, from Santa Claus to aliens to cosmic headaches to vaginas (which have appeared in the Lips’ songs and make a very strange cameo here as a marching band).  Since Coyne has always been fascinated with these topics, the film feels entirely of his own creation, even though the influences are obvious.

More amazingly, Christmas on Mars finds a way to combine all of these odd, disparate symbols into a coherent narrative, in the process revealing that Coyne’s obsessions are all connected to the search for some sort of mythological underpinning to our existence.  Santa Claus, as it’s inferred, is a symbol of the search for hope; space is a metaphor for loneliness; aliens are just like deities—distant and frustratingly silent.  And babies?  Well, in case you’ve forgotten your New Testament, Christmas on Mars reminds us that babies represent the promise that life will somehow go on.

This is why, perhaps surprisingly, Christmas on Mars is not only a genuine artistic accomplishment, but also an enjoyable watch.  Those criticized elements might seem like detractions—the amateurish acting, the campy dialogue, the clunky sets, the heavy-handed symbolism—but they ironically combine to create a film with a feel reminiscent of a classic sci-fi B-movie.  Underscoring that feel is an amazing soundtrack, which should not be overlooked as an afterthought to the film.  Though it’s not exactly something to listen to repeatedly on its own, it is stellar as accompaniment and an integral part of the film that both establishes and highlights the mood.

Perhaps even better than the actual film are the extras included on the DVD, which includes interviews with all four members of the band and a segment called “Behind the Scenes with Wayne and His Yellow Pad”, which proves to be just as trippy as the film itself.  Taken together, the interview segments explain a lot about the film, from why it took so long to make to the technical decisions involved with creating the film’s soundtrack.  As for Wayne and his yellow pad, it’s a fascinating look into the mind of a true artistic scientist.

Coyne has frequently—and incorrectly—been stereotyped as a drug-addled madman throughout his career, and this is no doubt partly his own fault for flirting with that image.  But if there’s one thing the extras reveal and that Lips fans have known for a long time, it’s that Coyne is, hands down, the hardest working man in rock music.  Oh, there’s no doubt that he’s a genius when it comes to dreaming up concepts, but watching Coyne describe his artistic process, it’s clear that Edison was right: genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. 

As he shows numerous drawings and storyboards from his notebook, Coyne explains how the seed for the movie’s aesthetic developed out of annual Christmas cards the Lips sent out, one of which featured a painting he made of an alien dressed in a Santa suit.  And in the interviews segment, he explains that the plot stems from a childhood experience when his mother recalled a fictitious movie in which space travelers face impending death until saved by a supernatural being.  As it turns out, his mother fell asleep while watching the beginning of a movie and dreamed the rest.  The story stuck with Coyne, and when, as an adult, he discovered it was not an actual movie, he became obsessed with making a film with the same storyline.

All these years later, the result is a charming, quirky film that, like all Lips endeavors from the last third of their career, explores the infinite hope and joy to be found in a finite existence.  No, Christmas on Mars isn’t a work of genius, but it definitely captures a genius at work.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66944-the-flaming-lips-christmas-on-mars/