Mars attacks? Wayne Coyne plays the Martian and Steven Drozd plays Major Syrtis in a Flaming Lips'-created 'Christmas on Mars,' opening at the Roxie. (Photo by J. Michelle Martin-Coyne/courtesy Cinema Purgatorio).

'Christmas on Mars' Non Halloween

Dennis Harvey October 30, 2008

It’s always encouraging when sheer weirdness is rewarded, and the quarter-century survival of Flaming Lips—perhaps indie rock’s equivalent to Parliament/Funkadelic, with Wayne Coyne its bizarro-genius George Clinton—is one such oasis of willful eccentricity in a sea of formulaic audio product.

They’re not studied hipsters; they’re from Oklahoma City, after all. Their psychedelia leans in pop and avant-garde directions, not that Phish-y "jam band" direction that makes me empathize with Cartman of South Park’s frequent cuss "Damn hippies!" They write actual, frequently catchy songs without ever risking MTV Buzz Bin embrace. (Except sole hit single "She Don’t Use Jelly" 15 years ago.) Their live shows are famously berserk. Their album titles are absurdist koans (I’m divided between Clouds Taste Metallic and In a Priest Driven Ambulance as personal fave.) They are possibly the least "industry" act ever to have won three Grammys, or have a hometown alley renamed after them. They wrote a song for Sponge Bob! What’s not to like?

Given leader Wayne Coyne’s longtime direction of their musical videos (remember the bodily-duct-taped hamburger/donut/sirloin mayhem of "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song"?) and his surreal stage conceits, it was probably inevitable he and the Lips would make an actual movie.

Opening at the Roxie this Friday, Christmas on Mars extends a long, lately rising number of narrative features made by musicians. They’ve always run a gamut from the terrible (Bob Dylan—please stop making movies! Prince—please don’t go back to making movies! Madonna—just leave cinema alone! It hates you!!!) to the inspirationally oddball (a wide range encompassing Neil Young, Yoko Ono, Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, Rob Zombie and R. Kelly, to name just a few). Such crossovers should be encouraged, simply because filmmakers coming from other media (think Miranda July or Julian Schnabel) often bring fresher ideas to the table than your average film-schooled Hollywould-be who’s been primarily shaped by movies, movies, and more movies.

As one might expect, the Lips’ maiden contribution lands firmly on the quirky/pleasurable rather than pseudo-quirky/excruciating end of this scale. Billed as "a film by The Flaming Lips"—directed by scenarist Coyne with Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury credited as co-helmers—it’s an outer-space fantasia that might by turns remind you of camp genre abstracts by the Kuchars, Matthew Barney’s ambitious screen objets d’art, Eraserhead-era Lynch, and Billy Nayer Show leader Corey McAbee’s 2001 The American Astronaut. It also taps heavily into the history of "something’s gone terribly wrong in the space station" sci-fiers from 2001 to Sunshine.

Things are going awry on a Mars colony where the planet’s first human baby is to be born—albeit in odd cocoon-ish rather than womb circumstances. An oxygen generator and gravity control device both malfunction, sending already stressed crew into ever-stranger behaviors. Personnel chief Major Syrtis (the Lips’ Steven Drozd) experiences the latter himself via hallucinations that include a marching band of vagina-heads. He also investigates them, particularly after one man commits suicide by venturing into the airless outside wearing only a Santa suit. (It’s that time of year.)

Before expiring, that man walks straight into a mysterious new arrival, a green-skinned Martian (Coyne himself) with antennae not just on his head, but on his band-jacket shoulders. Since there’s just got to be a Santa, Syrtis assigns the salvaged suit to this silent stranger, who might herald the station’s doom or its salvation.

Duly spaced-out Christmas on Mars is low-key, likable, meandering, and ultimately quite charming. Among its funnier performance riffings are appearances by practiced comic hands Fred Armisen of SNL, Adam Goldberg, and Blue’s Clues ex-host Steve Burns. (Though I couldn’t figure out who played the hilariously foul-mouthed station chief officer.) Other parts are played by non-professionals—including, natch, the remaining Flaming Lips.

Their amateur edge suits the film’s mix of B-movie homage and surrealism. Made over seven years’ course, it looks aptly nice ‘n’ cheesy, with emphasis on nice. There are lingering images, like fully space-suited astronauts decorating a miniature fake Xmas tree on the Martian tundra. (Wouldn’t that tinsel just float off?)

I’m a sucker for any almost movie deliberately "streaked" and faded to look like a forgotten Z-flick of yore, as this one occasionally is. Christmas on Mars isn’t genius, but it isn’t navel-gazing musicians’ indulgence, either. It has a generous as well as goofy spirit. One thing it doesn’t have, admittedly, is a lot of notable original Flaming Lips music—the band’s conventional (for them) score is dominated by instrumental variations on "Silent Night."

But those who’d be disappointed most by that factor should judge them not. After all, Christmas ends with a dedication "To All Flaming Lips Fans: Thank you for believing in us and thank you for giving us such a wonderful life. We will always love you." Aww.