Director/Screenplay – Wayne Coyne, Co-Directors – Bradley Beesley & George Salisbury, Producers – Bradley Beesley, Scott Booker & Wayne Coyne, Photography (b&w + some scenes colour) – Bradley Beesley, Music – The Flaming Lips, Special Effects – George Salisbury. Production Company – Lovely Sorts of Death/Head Trips
Steven Drozd (Major Syrtis), Wayne Coyne (Alien Being), Steven Burns (Major Lowell), Mark DeGraffenreid (Captain Icaria), Fred Armisen (Noachis), Scott Booker (Sirenum), Al Cory (Lucus), Dennis Coyne (Herschel), Kenny Coyne (Ed Fifteen), Adam Goldberg (Mars Psychiatrist), Freddy Harth (Lunae), Peter Hermes (Arsia), Josh Higgins (Simud), Michael Ivens (Deutrolinus), Michelle Martin-Coynes (Solis Chryse)
Humanity has begun colonization of Mars. However, living in their ship, the handful of colonists are experiencing feelings of despair and emptiness. Major Syrtis wants people to celebrate Christmas as a statement of hope. He then sees a green-skinned Santa figure but cannot be sure if this is real or a hallucination caused by loneliness.
Has there ever been a film combining the concepts of ‘Christmas’ and ‘Mars’ that has ever been any good? Look no further than turkeys such as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and The Christmas Martian (1971), the former being considered one of the all-time bad movies. Even George Pal fell down with Conquest of Space (1955) where his fine record with science-fiction throughout the 1950s was marred when he made a film about men landing on Mars and allowed it to be shot through with pretensions wherein the Almighty intervened to save stranded astronauts by causing it to snow on Christmas Day.
Christmas on Mars is a brave venture into the Martian Christmas idea from Wayne Coyne, better known as the lead singer in the alternative band The Flaming Lips. The Flaming Lips hail from Oklahoma City and have become modern proponents of the genre of space rock, which draws from the psychedelia of 1970s bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Hawkwind in featuring trippy guitar riffs, science-fiction lyrics and frequently spaced-out concerts. A sampling of Flaming Lips album titles include Telepathic Surgery (1989), Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) with tracks names that seem more like works at a surrealist art exhibition, including Free Radicals (A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading with a Suicide Bomber), Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles and The Wizard Turns on the Giant Silver Flashlight and Puts on His Werewolf Moccasins. Flaming Lips concerts are known to feature the band appearing in a UFO, various aliens and creatures as backup dancers and Wayne Coyne bodysurfing the crowds in a plastic bubble.
Wayne Coyne made Christmas on Mars, funding the production himself and shooting over a period between 2001 and 2007 on sets built around his own house. All of the band make appearances in the film. Christmas on Mars premiered at various rock festivals where it would usually be screened after the band’s performance. This later expanded to dvd and theatrical release.
I went in to see Christmas on Mars expecting something wacky and off-the-wall, possibly even a cult film. Maybe something surreal like The American Astronaut (2001) or when various members of Oingo Boingo made Forbidden Zone (1982). The surprise about the film is that Wayne Coyne plays it straight. It is not a send-up, not something jumping off into tripped-out headspace and trying to be as mind-spinning as possible as The Flaming Lips’ music and live gigs might suggest, it is simply a straightforward film about the loneliness and despair of the first colonists on Mars. This certainly makes for a surprising and different approach to what you would expect – it puts Christmas on Mars into the same boat as other cabin fever in space films such as Solaris (1972) and in particular Dark Star (1974). Indeed, Christmas on Mars could almost be construed as a version of Dark Star with all the comedy stripped out.
On the other hand, Christmas on Mars makes for an incredibly dull film. Nothing – and I mean nothing – happens throughout. There is no plot, just a series of observations and occasional philosophical ruminations on the situation, which is overridden with the ill-explained viewpoint that mankind is not meant to be out in space because it is a lonely place. Celebrating Christmas is seen as a symbol of hope that will dispel this notion (although this surely seems a staggeringly inadequate solution given the circumstances). Even as a science-fiction film, Christmas on Mars is uninteresting. In what would appear to be a homage to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, an alien with green skin and pasted on antenna turns up amid some cheap 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)-styled visuals, wanders through, is thought to be an hallucination and then departs after not doing much, leaving you uncertain what they were doing there. We see nothing of the exterior of the Martian surface outside the ship until the very end of the film.
The truth is that such a dull and uneventful film would never have had any kind of release were it not for the Flaming Lips association. Even billed as a Flaming Lips film, Christmas on Mars disappoints as the soundtrack does not feature any of their songs as you might expect but is an instrumental score, albeit a reasonably listenable one. Christmas on Mars is a film that is getting by solely on its association with the cult name of those behind it; on its own terms it would be struggling to obtain even a dvd release one suspects.