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Lips’ Christmas on Mars is Uncharacteristically Dark

Nick Anderson | Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two forces drive musicians to make movies: the monetary and the creative. As always, money is relatively simple. The movie sells, people make money, they pretend it makes them happier, life continues as before. This is a long and storied tradition, largely beginning with Colonel Parker’s death grip on Elvis’ career leading to “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Blue Hawaii.” Through the decades, it’s been carried by movies starring The Beatles (with the exception of “Yellow Submarine,” which wasn’t really made by The Beatles), KISS and the Spice Girls, all blatant money grabs.
The latter case is more interesting. There are musicians who truly want to be actors; see Tom Waits in “Dracula” or RZA in “Funny People” and “American Gangster.” There are misguided vanity projects; see Prince in “Under the Cherry Moon,” 50 Cent in “Get Rich or Die Trying.” In the best cases, musicians make movies because they truly stop caring about selling albums. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” OutKast’s “Idlewild,” The Ramones “Rock and Roll High School.” These films are jumbled, low budgeted and ill conceived, but absolutely fascinating.
Eighteen years into their bandhood, Wayne Coyne decided The Flaming Lips needed to make a movie. Not likely to gain anymore fan base after two decades, Coyne showed no concern for the commercial appeal of his film and unsurprisingly received no interest from major studios. Ever the optimist, Coyne financed the film himself, building the majority of the sets in his own Oklahoma backyard.
“Christmas on Mars,” finally released after seven years, is as strange as any of the albums put out by the foursome. In a crumbling colony on the Martian surface, the day before Christmas turns tragic when the Christmas pageant’s Santa commits suicide by fleeing through the unsecured airlock. The first known Martian happens to show up at the same time, only to become a silent replacement for the late Mr. Claus. Add the birth of the first human in the colony and a malfunctioning oxygen generator, and the plot begins to take on a rough form.
Anyone who’s seen a Flaming Lips show cannot help but be disappointed. Lips’ shows are assemblies of energy, featuring puppets, confetti, balloons and elaborate props. Simply put, the live shows are embodiments of everyday optimism and sunny fun. The film diverges from every aspect of the live shows, entering a black and white world of crumbling isolation, chronic depression and elaborate death.
The film’s obvious and admitted influence is David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” by way of “Dark Star.” While cameos from Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg provide some humor, they’re largely lost in the quasi-philosophical meanderings led by Coyne. While the film is not afraid to frankly admit to their central themes of death, rebirth, receding sanity and absurd hope, their dissections are lost to overt symbolism, obscure references and purposeful strangeness. It’s hard, if not impossible to understand this movie and Coyne’s in no way sympathetic to his audiences’ understanding.
Unlike their music, The Flaming Lips’ foray into film shows almost nothing, other than the fact that they own a video camera.  In their saving grace, The Flaming Lips composed the score, providing a perfect sound for the project. Backed with atmospheric musical wanderings, the film does not have to be understood to be appreciated and felt. While it never quite achieves touching or memorable, the film is interesting in a way only found when pushed beyond comfortable, and the film isn’t dancing on the line of comfort, it shoots well beyond it.
Coyne’s musing on his own life, channeled through his opening scene perhaps best describes the film: “Our lives, although very important to us, are meaningless. Nothing. Little specks of dust flowing through a vast black sea of infinity.”