Friday, January 1, 2010

Christmas on Mars (Warners, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” we watched was one I’d wanted to get in before the holiday season ended: Christmas on Mars, a project of the rock band the Flaming Lips (Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury — all three are credited as co-directors, with Coyne as writer, Beesley as cinematographer and Salisbury as editor) and a movie they apparently worked on for years before they finally finished it. It’s an intriguing film and one well worth watching, even though at the beginning it seems like it’s going to be a typical rock band’s vanity movie, all abstract images on the screen and loud, overbearing music on the soundtrack. As it winds on, however, a dramatic design begins to emerge and we realize the film is literally about Christmas on Mars: a group of human colonists in an otherwise abandoned base on the Red Planet face the loss of their oxygen supply, while the only woman at the station (played by the real-life Mrs. Wayne Coyne) has just given birth to a baby (the screen-filling closeups of the newborn briefly suggest the Flaming Lips were attempting their own unauthorized sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the parallels to the Nativity are stressed by the sign above the main set of the station that reads “BETHLEHEM 2055” (presumably the number represents the year this film takes place).

Though maddeningly unclear in the sort of way modern filmmakers adopt when they want to convince us they’re creating something really “deep” instead of merely being sloppy about the details of their story, Christmas on Mars turns unexpectedly moving, especially when the storylines of the earthling characters connect with that of the “Alien Super-Being” played by Wayne Coyne (one poster referred to him as a Martian, but he’s clearly not because he arrives on Mars in a spaceship of his own, a glowing orb that, once he parks it, shrinks to the size where he can stow it in his mouth — figure out how to do that on earth now and you’ll have solved the parking problem!), who one of the characters protests was a really lame Santa Claus (he dresses in a Santa-like costume but without a clear idea of the meaning of that get-up to the earthlings) and the other says he was the greatest Santa ever — which he was, because he secretly repaired the device that filtered out the Martian air and generated oxygen for the humans to breathe, something the humans themselves hadn’t been able to do because they were out of a key, no-longer-manufactured radioactive metal alloy crucial to the gadget’s functioning.

Christmas on Mars is also surprising in that it is not an over-long Flaming Lips music video either — they did do the underscoring, but it’s all instrumental mood pieces, a film score that works quite well in the film but isn’t something you’d want to listen to outside of this context. (According to, when one of the scenes from this movie was deleted the Lips took the backing they’d written for it and made it a song on their next CD.) Christmas on Mars isn’t the sort of movie I’d want to watch every day, but on its own terms it’s quite good and considerably more moving than many of the abstract pseudo-tales usually told when a rock band whose members have more money than taste get some camera equipment together and decide it would really be fun to make a movie.