Christmas on Mars is exactly the kind of film one might expect from The Flaming Lips: dramatically bold, awkwardly humorous, and unequivocally bizarre. Set, appropriately enough, during Christmastime on Mars, the film focuses on a small space crew who discover that both their oxygen generator and gravity control pod have malfunctioned. Rather than emphasize these failures, first-time director and Lips frontman Wayne Coyne uses the tragic circumstance to highlight the psychological predicament of the crew, who must reconcile their emotional frailty with their presumed futility. "The isolation changes you," explains the ship's psychologically damaged psychiatrist. "You wake up every day in this unbelievable situation. [...] So [the mind] fills in the unbelievable with whatever it can, and sometimes it fills it in with hell."
For all its apparent doom and gloom, Christmas on Mars is really an optimistic story, an existential humanist rumination. Although it may share superficial similarities to the films it is most often compared to, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) and Eraserhead (David Lynch), it doesn't theorize about transcendence or subscribe to dream logic. Christmas on Mars is simply constructed on the belief that there exists a power within us to create our own happiness, to carve out our own sense of meaning and purpose in the face of dire circumstances. The film is an investment in the human spirit.
The plot can be confusing at first, but the main points are fairly obvious. In fact, while some of the technical details are abstracted, the psychological and symbolic aspects are continually reinforced in the dialogue. Even the hallucinations are explained, so not much is left to interpretation (imagine if Eraserhead's dream sequences were elucidated). But the film's success doesn't rely on narrative complexity; with directors Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury, Coyne positions the music and images as primary components. You won't reach for tissue when Major Syrtis (played by Lips' Steven Drozd) gets his Christmas, but you'll never forget the marching vagina-headed astronauts or the blood streaming down a crew member's face as "Silent Night" plays beneath. And while most of the film is in grainy black and white, the few moments that are in color are unforgettable.
Predictably, the score is one of Christmas on Mars' strongest assets. Expansive, lush, ethereal, and droney, it sounds like what Zaireeka might have sounded like had it been composed by Angelo Badalamenti or Igor Stravinsky. And you can't beat Drozd singing "Silent Night" in falsetto. For a band whose sound experiments have been minimized on the last couple full-lengths, it's great to see The Flaming Lips using this opportunity as a blank check to more fully explore their music's cinematic tendencies. It even holds up pretty well as a standalone album. The score's ubiquity occasionally detracts from (and sometimes undermines) the narrative, but its confusing juxtapositions and constant jumps in and out of diegesis make the film even more compelling.
Nearly every element rewards close examination. Salisbury's special effects, though sometimes laughably primitive, are usually pretty outstanding and befitting of its surrealist leanings. Even the noticeably weak acting adds to this feel, with the purposefully choppy interaction and poorly timed humor working well within the mentally distressed environment. It's as if Coyne is urging us to simultaneously laugh and find beauty in its unconventional aesthetic: one moment, humanity is revealed through intimate close-ups (thanks in large part to Beesley's cinematography); the next moment, the captain describes an alien superbeing (Coyne) as something that just "crawled out of Godzilla's asshole." The cast -- an admittedly one-dimensional sausage fest -- may not have depth, but they're suitably exaggerated. Adam Goldberg's performance as the ship's psychiatrist is easily the film's strongest, but Drozd's plea to preserve a Santa suit from a dead crew member's body makes for the most arresting moment.
As Coyne explained in a recent interview, "I’m not trying to be the greatest filmmaker of all time. I just want the people who’ve believed in me to like it." In this sense, Christmas on Mars is quite the achievement, creating indelible impressions with a relatively small budget (roughly $500,000). It can be difficult, at times, to discern between its intended weirdness and inadvertent weaknesses, and mixing surrealism and indeterminacy with humanism and existentialism is always a risky venture. But this imprecision is merely symptomatic of the film's most enduring quality: Christmas on Mars ain't about perfection; it's about the experience.