After their earliest decade as fuzzy-noise punks, Oklahoma City rockers the Flaming Lips found breakout success with their 1993 single, “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but their creative evolution had further to mutate before they could become today’s puckish wizards of psychedelic bubblegum. Stereophonics-obsessed frontman Wayne Coyne’s mental health was mildly questioned in 1996 when he offered cassettes to be played by 40 car-stereo owners for his “Parking Lot Experiment” symphonies, and the following year saw the commercially unfriendly release of Zaireeka, an album whose four CDs were meant to be played simultaneously. Though they’ve experienced mainstream success since 1999’s masterful The Soft Bulletin (Bud Light and Dell commercials even sampled their 2006 record), the Lips’ passion for storytelling through song and crowd-wowing theatrics—costumes, confetti, smoke machines, and more interactive sonic noodling—has, inevitably, produced a no-budget narrative feature.
Co-directed by Coyne, George Salisbury, and Bradley Beesley, and shot with friends and family over several years in Coyne’s OKC backyard, Christmas on Mars is a true DIY labor of love that doesn’t trade on the band’s cult status; it succeeds (and fails) by its own weirdness. On its mostly monochromatic, ultra-grainy 16mm surface, Christmas on Mars looks like Eraserhead via John Carpenter’s Dark Star, a broodingly absurdist sci-fi fable set on the newly colonized red planet. The space station’s first baby is about to be born, and Major Syrtis (Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) wants to organize a holiday pageant to celebrate. Alas, his Santa has committed air-lock suicide and the station is self-destructing just as a mute, messianic martian (Coyne) mysteriously arrives to bring harmony and help bridge the religious and secular sides of Xmas iconography.
Except for the ship’s foul-mouthed captain—and improvised cameos by Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg—this is a shockingly humorless, even dull film. For all its vaginal hallucinations and nativity, it’s mainly pregnant with pauses that too frequently suck all the fun/oxygen out of each scene, like some art-film parody. And where are the songs? Neither an underground space musical like the undervalued The American Astronaut nor an art-damaged elegy like Daft Punk’s Electroma, the intensely reverberating, surround-sound score seems appropriately intergalactic, yet unmarried to the imagery. As a Lips completist, it’s at least worth enduring for its homegrown resourcefulness, all General Electric stoves and found industrial objects, but that’s the thing about experimentation: Sometimes it’s destined to fail.