The Flaming Lips
Christmas on Mars
by Kevin J. Elliott

If timing is everything, then it must be questioned why the Flaming Lips have chosen now as the moment to unleash their long gestating art-flick Christmas on Mars onto an unsuspecting public. Maybe because it’s finally finished? That might be the case, but they could have potentially taken another seven years to polish the movie’s rough edges. It seems like it was back in the era of grunge when we first heard the rumblings of the Flaming Lips’ outrageous project, pitting Wayne Coyne as director in his own backyard, with what was at the time just a wicked vision. The idea of Christmas on Mars was profound when paired with the group’s musical peak—some point between Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin. Since then though, while they’re one of the most entertaining live bands in the world, their output has succumbed to the fantasy character rock Coyne has perpetuated through props and space-age mumbo-jumbo. They’re two steps away from being a cartoon. This dilution of the Flaming Lips’ once potent pleasures, in retrospect, bodes well for Christmas on Mars being released now instead of back when a masterpiece like The Soft Bulletin would have eclipsed the film’s whimsy and psychedelic power.

With Coyne as director, it’s apparent, as the film liberally cribs from classics like Eraserhead and 2001: A Space Odyssey, that he’s not an auteur in the slightest, but nor is he a hack. Regardless of Christmas on Mars’ release date, it will certainly survive as both a quirky piece of ephemera in the Lips’ long line of quirky ephemera and as the cult-worthy midnight movie Coyne portends it to be. Short on plot—the characters inhabit an oxygen-deficient outpost lab on Mars and battle with their wits, and an alien Coyne, on the eve of Christmas—but high on concept. The narrative does a fine job framing the existential quandaries of lonely astronauts with the doom and gloom claustrophobic visuals of deep space. Most of the scenes were shot with chintzy ‘50s sci-fi sets in a grainy black and white (nods to Lynch) paired with modest, shoestring effects, making the pyrotechnic bursts of color all the more stunning. In fact it’s these long sequences of trippy illusions and abject images (a bloody baby that controls the universe) that cater to Christmas on Mars’ potential legacy. Without such adherence to mind-altering diversions, the hokey, untrained acting by the band and the crackpot philosophies that tend to outweigh the movie’s inherent humor would be somewhat unbearable. Like with Daft Punk’s Electroma, patience (or good drugs) is needed to languish through the long stretches without dialogue.

I can safely assume that were Christmas on Mars released back when there was a homemade bong stuffed behind the recliner, there would be many a late night enjoyed in the company of the Flaming Lips. The score alone can stand by itself, as it’s electronic noodling and orchestral grandeur is far and wide the most interesting piece of music the band has released in years. Still, despite the charm and the effort put into the film, if I had a choice, I’d choose a hallucinogen-fueled Zaireeka party over Christmas on Mars any day of the week.