For a completely different take on the traditional Christmas movie, The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic, surrealist oddity Christmas on Mars falls somewhere between the slapdash, space-kitsch of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, the seasonal hope of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the bizarre shockfest of Lynch’s Eraserhead.
Filmed over seven years in singer Wayne Coyne’s backyard in Oklahoma, it is the quintessential DIY movie, making use of household objects to create Christmas on a space station on Mars. A thinly disguised oven was used as the control centre, covered in personal mini electric fans rotating and spinning like the whirring cogs of a machine. Huge, disused oil tankers were transformed into 2001-like space tunnels to rather good effect, helped by the fact that the film was made to look as grainy as possible so as to make everything look otherworldly. Indeed, the print shown at the special screenings at the Barbican on December 12-14 (with Q+A with Coyne), had so many lines in it that it looked like it had been dropped a few times on the way.
Despite the jarring amateurishness of the set-up, some hammy acting and clunky dialogue, the film does manage to give an impression of what life might be like in a remote space station during the holiday season, as isolation and boredom send the mental state of the crew downhill. With the oxygen system on the blink, the crew member designated to play Santa in the forthcoming Christmas celebrations suffers demented hallucinations and commits suicide by exiting an airlock without the adequate space attire. The main protagonist, Major Styris, also starts experiencing a series of surreal visions, mostly involving a spaceman with a large vagina-like head holding a dead baby. Coyne himself appears as a benevolent, wordless green alien (in stark contrast to his real-life loquacious self) and later dons a Santa suit. He helps bring hope to those trapped at the space station, alongside a forlorn-looking Christmas tree and the seasonally significant birth of a baby.
The project was a labour of love and a family affair, with Coyne’s wife playing mother to the first human baby born on Mars and the other band members appearing as various and sundry characters in the space station. Thought to have the best acting chops, Flaming Lips’ guitarist Steven Drozd plays Major Styris. His weight fluctuates drastically throughout the movie: when shooting started seven years previously he had been a gaunt heroin addict and filming continued right through to his full recovery, which resulted in him being able to go through one door and come out the other side 10 pounds heavier.
Whilst the DIY, low-budget nature of the project could endear the film to Flaming Lips fans, who are already familiar with the band’s whacky stage shows, offbeat pop and fantastical lyrics, even Coyne himself admits that the regular cinema-goer might not quite take to the film so well. The fans, he hopes, will suspend disbelief and be caught up in the magic, wonder and fantasy of the movie. For a band who have spent the last 25 years making some of the most innovative and bizarre music to have nearly crossed into the mainstream, the film should really come as no surprise – the band directed numerous music videos themselves for albums with titles such as ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’. Yet, to other, ‘regular’ viewers the film might seem like a self-indulgent, pretentious vanity project where the only decent thing is the music. However, hearing Coyne talk at the Barbican about this project, which was so personal to him, you can’t help finding all that is endearing, hopeful, joyous and optimistic within the film. Perhaps the magic of a Mars Christmas and the mysterious green alien has spread some cheer after all.