In 500 Words: Christmas on Mars

Due to the abject grooviness of The Flaming Lips, Christmas on Mars is embedded below in its entirety, for your viewing pleasure:

Two men in pressurized suits decorate a Christmas tree in the harsh atmosphere of Mars. Moths flutter through a deteriorating space station. A man dressed as Santa dies a terrible death of his own infliction.

The Flaming Lips’ much-anticipated film debut is the first feature film I have found that fits the definitions put forth in my comments on the Cinema of Exultation: it incorporates low-fidelity visual effects, seemingly-unrehearsed dialogue, cheaply-constructed sets and costumes, occasional bursts of vivid color, and formal references to pop cultural phenomena. This is hardly surprising, judging from the group’s provenance. What is surprising is that the film is not only engaging and well-made, but also a fluent piece of cinema that I can best describe as Fellini plus Lynch plus Kubrick, divided by Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Bradley Beesley’s 16mm cinematography is worth noting for its delicious, high-contrast black-and-white, punctuated by seizures of impossible color.

Director (and Flaming Lips front man) Wayne Coyne’s striking imagery makes it clear that Christmas on Mars is to be taken seriously. At the same time, Coyne’s inexperience is self-evident, with results both negative and positive. For instance, it’s hard to shake the sensation that Christmas was made for stoners—the narrative is weak, and it can’t hold a candle to the trippy visuals and score. However, Coyne’s unfamiliarity with dialogue direction and his decision to cast non-actors in lead roles ultimately pays off with some of the most naturally awkward conversations I’ve ever seen on film. Conversations are surreal affairs, and “real” directors forget this. Coyne, either by design or because he wasn’t paying attention, committed to film some scenes that would impress Stanislavski himself. Of course the lack of directorial experience is a double-edged blade, and there are plenty of examples of performance that falls flat.

On the topic of performance, Steven Drozd’s acting is beautifully personal and reminds me of how Hamlet might behave if he were sent to live in a colony on Mars. Adam Goldberg’s brief appearance as Dr. Scott Zero is stunning.

Christmas on Mars is far from perfect. When you play in the realm of the art house, especially as cavalierly as Coyne does with Christmas, you have to be prepared to be dinged by critics. The ending is an anticlimax that can’t match the intensity and genius of the first thirty minutes. Christmas has an obsession with references to female genitalia that, although not entirely out of place, could have been greatly minimized. A lot of what should be subtle metaphor is instead trite and distasteful pseudo-intellectual navel-gazing. Christmas is at its best when at its most visceral. The gaping mouth of a dead Santa Claus requires no interpretation.

As a freshman effort, this film is nothing short of astounding. It holds value as a piece of Flaming Lips ephemera, but it could just as easily be a piece of cinematic history.

Dear Wayne,

Please make another one.

[rate 3.5]

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