Christmas On Mars: A Fantastical Film Freakout Featuring The Flaming Lips
, November 20th, 2008 11:11
The Flaming Lips' psychedelic lo-fi sci-fi film finally sees the light of day. John Doran thinks that the demented Christmas carol was worth the wait.
This is exactly what you would imagine a Flaming Lips feature film to be like. It is preposterous, beautiful, funny, as profound as it is dumb and quite, quite disorientating. It requires massive suspension of disbelief and is held together with gaffa tape. The flick has long since become part of the Flips' own personal mythology being a seemingly endless project first kick-started eight years ago. Viewers of the fine rockumentary The Fearless Freaks were treated to glimpses into Wayne Coyne's peculiarly autistic auteurism. This mainly consisted of him disappearing into the abandoned cement factory next to his house in Oklahoma to film seemingly unconnected scenes involving a space settlement on Mars during the festive season. The sense that you took away from Bradley Beasley's amazing documentary was that this was a flight of fancy that would never see the light of day. Especially as you saw a slightly bewildered looking Coyne, trying to build a giant space station out of bits of junk he found lying around his suburban neighbourhood.
But there was a method to the madness and this is a great metaphor for the band themselves. Musically they construct an epic Technicolor psychedelia out of the detritus of post punk. And this indie DIY/can-do spirit has been applied to the process of making Christmas On Mars. Of course this pretty much ensures that anyone who likes the immersive, dazzle happy clown pacifying effect of big budget fodder like Quantum Of Solace will react with horror when they clap eyes on this. They in fact will surely react violently to its post Darkstar sets with Prisoner Of Cell Block H wobbling doors and Silent Running meets Scum levels of acting competence. Well, fuck 'em. This is far too good for them.
Addressing the idea that his project had become like the Chinese Democracy of cinema, Coyne has admitted that the germ of the film is even older: "I wanted to make a movie since I was a teenager. I remember me and my brothers would come in after being out all night and my mother , who claimed she never slept [laughs], would be crying at some film she had just seen. What she thought was a sad old movie. She said it was about some abandoned ship or space station or some workers were abandoned in the middle of nowhere and they were facing some sort of certain death.
"And somehow, when they accepted that they were going to die some kind of magical being turned up – she couldn't remember whether it was God or some kind of super being from outer space – and I remember that me and my brothers were utterly fascinated by this movie and that some day we would watch this movie."
Coyne and kin then set about trying to track the film down but eventually realised that probably what had happened was that their mother had watched the start of one film, fallen asleep and then woken up and watched the end of a second film and created a composite of this, probably with some dreamt up information thrown in for good measure. The film was born at that moment: "When I realised that this movie didn't exist; that was the exact second I thought 'Well, I'll make that movie.'"
The plot concerns Major Syrtis (Steven Drozd, the musical genius of The Flaming Lips) who is trying to arrange an Xmas party to entertain the demoralized staff of a remote and dilapidated scientific base on Mars. Also present on the base is Solis Chryse (Coyne's wife Michelle), the virgin mother of the bubble baby Ophir who is mankind's last chance for survival/redemption. The isolation on the far flung outpost is proving too much for some of the astronauts and Ed Fifteen (Coyne's brother Kenny) commits suicide by running out of an airlock wearing a Santa costume instead of a spacesuit. Syrtis starts suffering from the same dementia and is soon plagued by visions of a brass marching band who have vaginas instead of heads. And then the bright green, antennae sporting Alien Super-Being (Coyne himself) shows up to add to the psychedelic festive mayhem.
Anyone who is familiar with the Flips - their far out videos, their punks-on-LSD aesthetic, their celebratory live shows - will feel instantly at home here. The comparative metaphor of insect and human life to represent our own lack of acuity concerning the true nature of life (see the songs 'Bugs' and 'Moth In The Incubator'); awe in the face of our own mortality ('Do You Realize??', 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed'). Also the visual metaphors or tropes of enlightenment gained after a head injury, the egg as a symbol of spiritual rebirth and, naturally, brass bands with vaginas instead of faces. Add to the mix mentally discombobulating bursts of noise, retina frying visual effects and a score by The Flaming Lips and you have something that is unique while simultaneously referencing The Wizard Of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and countless other cult films. There are obvious shortcomings here such as poor acting, a confusing script and a soundtrack that isn't a match for one of their great albums such as Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, The Soft Bulletin, Zaireka or Clouds Taste Metallic. There is a big but however. This makes me feel like I could get together with my friends and make a really good, unique, life-changing film if I really wanted to. And that in some ways is just about the highest praise I can offer.