The Flaming Lips – Christmas On Mars

The Flaming Lips - Christmas On MarsThe Flaming LipsChristmas On Mars (Warner Bros)

For some of us, the wait for Christmas On Mars has been more anticipated than the wait for Chinese Democracy. While the Guns N’ Roses disc nearly doubled the delay time for their release, the Flaming Lips‘ project doubles the output, providing fans with both the soundtrack and film to go with it.

At the same time, both releases share an unfortunate attribute: the longer than one waits for projects of reported distinction, the better the chance it will suck. It was certainly the case for Guns N Roses, but with the Lips, there was always a nagging notion that they were not taking themselves too seriously. With the project finally reaching the light of day, I found myself so enthralled with the event that I forked over the extra cash necessary to receive the bumper sticker, the t-shirt, the trading cards, the premier ticket, and the popcorn box. I was hoping for the “golden ticket,” a pair of backstage passes to their infamous New Year’s Eve show and autographs from each of the four Lips, but alas, my spontaneous excitement was not as quick as other fans pining for the same thing.

Was it worth the money? From a collector’s perspective, yes. I now have some additional Lips holiday fare to go along with the Christmas cards that I used to receive from the band each year.

Was it worth the wait? That’s a matter of opinion, largely depending on how much of a fan you are and how tolerant of the band’s indulgences, even when they’re based on themes written on reams of Swiss cheese.

The origins of Christmas On Mars, in fact, come from one of the designs on those old Christmas cards. For that particular year, Wayne Coyne drew a strange holiday-themed character that strongly resembles the green alien he portrays in the film. The notion that an entire film could be spawned by such a simple item is a testament to the man’s continual desire to press forward creatively. It’s a characteristic that has served him well, and even when Coyne falls flat, there’s plenty of room for praise as there are very few artists today that would simply assess the financial risks involved in such a project and back out. In Wayne’s world, the failures (“The Parking Lot Experiments“) can eventually lead to successes (Zaireeka), so half of the fun is watching him give it a go while giving him a nice-sized “Atta boy” when the original idea falls flat.

To summarize the plot, Major Syrtis (played by Steven Drozd) is coordinating a Christmas Eve event where everyone on the Mars outpost will get together and sing Christmas carols. Everyone on the post is in a bad mood and everything appears to be breaking down. When the inhabitants aren’t in a pissy mood, they’re going insane. This includes Syrtis, who sees sausages turning into fetuses and a marching band that has female genitalia for heads. The idea is that the Christmas celebration will lift everyone’s spirits and provide the station with some much-needed hope. In the middle of getting ready for the event, the person that is scheduled to play Syrtis’ Santa that evening kills himself, an alien (Coyne) lands in front of the space station and eats his spaceship, and there’s a space baby that provides some kind of significance.

The delay in the film’s release indicates that there was difficulty in coming up with a coherent script, challenges in finding adequate funding, or simply shifts in creative priorities. After watching Christmas On Mars you get the idea that all three of those scenarios probably took place during the seven-year gestation period.

The length of time also means that there are issues of continuity: Major Syrtis’ (played by Steven Drozd) hair inexplicitly changes length from one scene to the next and there were times when Coyne’s antennae move around to different positions.

You begin to notice such things because following the plot is nearly impossible and watching the locals “act” alongside some professionals like Adam Goldberg, Fred Armisen, and the original guy (Steve Burns) from Blues Clues. Their speaking roles show little emotional depth and their story lines are so weakly written that it’s hard to relate to anyone on the screen.

We’re supposed to believe that Syrtis is personally undertaking some kind of Christmas event to boost the morale of the Mars space station staff, but we have no idea why the staff members are so down and prone to spouts of space madness. Whenever the characters are upset, they merely yell at each other and say “fuck” a lot. Whenever a fellow crewmember goes crazy, the “sane” staff members trivialize the event and belittle the traumatized peer.

Drozd sputters and pokes around, seemingly thinking that by taking forever to deliver his lines that he is projecting some kind of dramatic effect to the scenes. When his original Santa (played by Coyne’s older brother) goes crazy and runs outside to the Mars landscape without protective clothing, he shows more emotion in trying to obtain the Santa costume off the corpse then when he learns of his colleague’s demise.

Yes, Christmas On Mars is a mess and yes, I’m reading way too much into a film that is apparently meant to be enjoyed as stoned escapism. But to be honest, I would have fallen asleep in the middle of the film had I smoked a joint beforehand. Scenes move along at a snail’s pace and the visual effects are so hokey and/or few and far between that you wade through eighty minutes of nonsense to see two stoned-enhanced moments: the frozen corpse of the Santa dude and the vagina-head aliens at the end of the film.

Thankfully, it’s the soundtrack itself that saves this project from complete failure. It’s an eerie and wonderfully dynamic affair, efficiently alternating between cold, desolate synthesized dirges and majestic dreamscapes. In short, the score provides more emotional weight and than the entire DVD. It is, perhaps, the Lips’ most challenging musical endeavor since The Soft Bulletin.

As much as I’ve bitched recently about how The Flaming Lips have grown too complacent with their live sets and role as music festival party boys, I don’t want to be too harsh at dishing on something that challenges the band and their fans. I may have been waiting for a project like this for some time, but I can’t in good faith provide unanimous praise for something that is ultimately geared for the faithful. Now that it’s released, I feel sad that it wasn’t shelved; I enjoyed the idea of Christmas On Mars more than the actual finished product.

Wayne Coyne is not the kind of guy that’s about to leave any project by the wayside, but the film is more an affirmation of his work ethic than talents as a filmmaker. Indeed, as the soundtrack clearly points out, Coyne and company should not be quitting their day jobs anytime soon.

Trailer: The Flaming Lips’ Christmas On Mars

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