Wayne Coyne's quixotic promise to give his fans a psychedelic Christmas movie, after years of speculation and promises, has finally come to fruition. Christmas on Mars makes its Madison debut this week at the Orpheum Theatre. Since hearing about the film's conception in 2001, I had been impatiently waiting and eventually doubted I'd ever see this visual spectacle from The Flaming Lips, until I finally caught wind that the band premiered it at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington in May.
I collected a few of my most spaced-out friends, and with giant disco balls, spotlights and imponderable waves of technicolor confetti in our brains, we submitted ourselves to Coyne's vision on Tuesday evening. Would this be a work of genius? A flop? A nightmare trip?
The Orpheum's sheer size and faded elegance provided a perfect ambiance for such a hallucinogenic spectacle as this flick. It was strangely empty for the 6 p.m. screening, though, and it appeared that Madison had not yet caught on that the film was playing just on the other side of the theater restaurant's bustling kitchen.
I hope local Lips' fans and other supporters of cinematic oddity do catch on, though, because the film is not to be missed. Christmas on Mars certainly has a vision, and though it is certainly not for everyone, filmgoers interested in a weird and imaginative experience should catch the film on the big screen.
Director Coyne explained in an interview with Pitchfork Media how he wanted to give Christmas on Mars the feel of a "drug-damaged foreign film." It met his expectations, indeed. Lips multiinstrumentalist Steven Drozd plays the lead role of Major Syrtis, an optimistic astronaut battling the fancies of his increasingly oxygen-deprived brain while facing the despair of a Martian base with no supplies and dwindling air. Steve Burns, ex-host of the Nickelodeon's kids show Blue's Clues and longtime friend of the Lips also makes an appearance. His typecast familiarity is a slight distraction, but is hardly enough to take the viewer out of the deranged Martian setting.
The film is replete with alternating imagery both wondrous and ghastly. Scenes were loaded with graphic depictions of violence against fetuses in various stages of development, for example. It was subtle running visual themes that tied the film together, though, and is where its imaginative power resided despite the ultra-low budget. Small digital embellishments flowed across the screen in varying degrees of hallucinogenic intensity, creating a stylized aspect to the film consistent with Coyne's other forms of visual art.
A taste of this can be seen in the trailer for the film.
Bradley Beesley's cinematography is excruciatingly detailed and purpose-driven, meanwhile. His use of grainy sixteen-millimeter black & white film interspersed with color clips avoided the overwhelming mindfuck of frantic color and bright lights that is characteristic of The Flaming Lips' live shows, while still maintaining the film's pace.
Perhaps the most surprising quality of the movie is its subtlety. The music, composed by the band, was not the primary focus. It was sparse, ambient, and for the most part merely added to the mood of the story. Its other sounds -- footsteps, and Lynchian sounds of distant machines, for example -- mingled with the music, while the slow dialogue that unfolded the film's loose plot only added to its stark aura.
Beneath the layers of weirdness for the sake of weirdness, Coyne explores humanistic themes, including the relationship between science and religion in the story of the first external pregnancy far from our cradle of life. He also refreshingly promotes an optimistic outlook that contrasts with the sinking-ship point of view that reigns today.
Christmas on Mars was made with a love for most delicate and fragile sides of life: birth and death. The contrived resolution that comes from the unflinching message of hope does cause the plot to fall flat towards the end of the film and drag on in a somewhat sloppy resolution. Despite this, though, the film ends with a pleasant aftertaste and not too harsh of a comedown, however anticlimactic the ending might be.
Screening in varying degrees of extended and limited engagements around the country, Christmas on Mars will be released on DVD in November. No matter that format, though, it's the novelty of this sprawling and often incoherent work of cinema destines it for cult popularity beyond The Flaming Lips' dedicated fan base.