The London premiere of The Flaming Lips‘ long-awaited festive psychobilly hellride from heaven movie Christmas On Mars fell on Friday night, and PM was there to take in some first impressions and listen to an interesting Q&A with the director and one of the stars, Wayne Coyne.
The narrative is simple enough, but typically skewed: It’s Christmas, we’re in a space station on the Martian surface, and Stephen Drozd is consistently depressed, worried and pacing. A baby is being genetically manufactured on board, and forms a kind of moral centre for the whole film. At many points Drozd says that he feels the successful birth of the child will provide everyone with a new reason to live, and assurance that the universe isn’t doomed after all. However, until that happens, all the inmates (probably the best term) are very messed up. One of them commits suicide by running out of an airlock in a Santa suit, others are generally staring at walls and swearing an awful lot. Vital parts of the space station are falling to pieces (not just a symptom of the defiantly home-made sets), and everyone’s having nightmares of varying graphicness. Cue the entry of Wayne Coyne as a mute alien with green horns who basically wanders around making things an awful lot better, until the end when the baby is finally born and snow falls.
Charming and simple though the plot is, it’s the details and motifs of the film that impress and make it seem most cohesive. There’s an immediate claustrophobia to the whole affair that lasts right from the very opening until we’re treated to the welcome strains of Silent Night about ten minutes from the end. It informs the majority of the aesthetics; we rarely see anything more than dark corridors and white rooms. When we do see something else, it’s often strikingly interjected biological imagery – bloodied babies, strongly vaginal-looking orifices and general psychedelic meanderings. Motifs come in the shape of several sequences where the music’s beats echo footsteps, lights being turned on and off, and other physical actions. When it does happen, the mind is naturally drawn to consider the implications of these synchronisations. Even if they have no real effect on the narrative or the characters, it aids the construction of distinct atmospheric conditions.
The music occasionally deals in leitmotifs, with certain themes seemingly attached to certain ambiences or locales rather than particular characters. For the most part, it finds the Lips indulging their more disjointed and avant-garde tendencies rather than the stadium-sized emotional microcosms of recent years. It’s an able accompaniment to the drama, as we might expect from such talents as these.
The strong contrasts in aesthetic are bludgeoningly simple, so the middle ground for emotional contact has to come only from the characters. Stephen Drozd makes a surprisingly naturalistic actor, and elicits genuine sympathy in the audience more often than not. Other amateur actors also seem to be reasonably competent in their roles, particularly the foul-mouthed captain who provides uneasy humour in all but one of his scenes. Adam Goldberg, the only recognisable non-Lips face, is quite alarming as a therapist describing the dreams of his fellow crew members, resulting in the film’s most striking sequence where a marching band of vaginal-headed musicians trample a baby to death. Neat!
In the final sequence, Drozd has organised a Christmas sing-along with only two attendees – Coyne dressed as Santa and another crew member with a lovely singing voice. As the chorus on Silent Night, the baby is born and a tear of blood is shed. After so much bleak, violent imagery and unsettling humorous touches, this is a tremendous reward and, almost, a step back towards reality. If it seems like there are a lot of holes in this account, it’s because there are. It’s difficult to go into more detail, but suffice is to say that the film succeeds where it really shouldn’t. The brainchild of rock’s most whimsical auteur, Christmas On Mars is a real surprise. Shouldn’t we all be distracted by the fact that – ooh! Wayne Coyne is GREEN! Or – ooh! That bit of music sounds like it’s from YOSHIMI! – and a million other links back to reality? Maybe we should, but it’s even easier to forget those links and accept the film on its own terms.
Also, look at this picture of PM and Wayne Coyne taken after the screening. He was lovely, and more than willing to have a chat. As it happens, we spoke about crackheads in Oklahoma. Always meet your idols kids, but only if they’re Wayne Coyne. Visit the Lips at their website, it’s terrific.