I Stood Up and I Said “Huh!”

by |
09/30/2008 3:30 PM |

Jesse Hassenger Sees the Flaming Lips Movie.

A long-awaited, years-in-the-making science-fiction project has finally seen the light of day. I’m not talking about anything directed by James Cameron; this one involves musicians. And I’m not talking about Chinese Democracy; I’m not yet sure of the science-fiction component of that one, apart from the dystopic undertones of those Best Buy-exclusive rumors. No, I’m speaking of Christmas on Mars, a film by Wayne Coyne and the rest of the Flaming Lips (which Rolling Stone did, in fact, refer to as “the Chinese Democracy of rock movies”).

As a committed if not strictly devout Flaming Lips fan, I’ve been hearing about Christmas in Mars since I was in college. That might not seem like such a long time, but keep in mind that I just turned twenty-eight and have begun feeling extremely old, which you should not take as an insult if you are older than twenty-eight. In fact, if you’re older than twenty-eight, just think about how when the Flaming Lips began production on this movie, it’s possible that you were still in your early or mid twenties, or in your twenties at all, and as such, slightly more full of hope than you are now.

In any case, Christmas on Mars has been in the works for a long time, and is now open to the New York public at the KGB Complex prior to its DVD release later in the fall (see the link above for info). The movie is about a bunch of possibly-doomed astronauts who have colonized mars. Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd plays sort of the Charlie Brown of this piece, an astronaut trying to put together some sort of space-station Christmas pageant to celebrate the colony’s first artificial birth. Wayne Coyne, naturally, plays a serene-looking martian.

Frankly, I was kinda hoping Christmas on Mars, with its ultra-loud custom-build sound system (excuse me: eta Bootis Mega Supersonic Super-Sound Surround System), would rekindle my love affair with the Flaming Lips. I loved The Soft Bulletin like everyone else, and though the second half of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots isn’t as good as the first, come on, it’s called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and it has a title track. But while At War with the Mystics has some brilliant songs, a lot of it descends into hippie noodling, like they spent the years between albums waiting for Ben & Jerry’s to name an ice cream after them. But if anything could re-endear the Flaming Lips to me and get me excited about them (eventually) making another record, it’s their nigh-lifelong ambition to make a science-fiction movie in their backyard. This Mega Supersonic Etc. business had me picturing the kind of euphoria you get at a Flaming Lips concert.

It doesn’t quite get there. First of all, the movie isn’t a musical. I know it probably sounds incredibly plebian and unsophisticated of me to complain that a movie written, directed, produced, and starring a rock band, funded by a record label, doesn’t have any proper songs in it, but I guess I’m a slave to my naïve expectations.

Another warning sign: the movie opens with a little informational interview with Wayne Coyne, where he talks about the origins and ideas behind the movie. Between this and Tideland, my girlfriend has officially become suspicious of any movie preceded by a short segment in which the director explains and justifies his work. Even so, the Coyne interview is pretty great, if only for (a.) the font it uses and (b.) the revelation that the idea for this movie came from Coyne’s mom falling asleep in front of the TV, and either dreaming or remixing what eventually became the plot outline for this film.

Then the movie actually starts, and it is kind of cool, and yes, any Flaming Lips fan should probably check it out, because how often do you get to see a band you like making a movie? It’s shot in 16mm black-and-white with occasional splashes of color and more-than-occasional blasts of crazy earsplitting noise.

But as neat as this stuff is, it’s not quite the phantasmagoric craziness I’d expect from the Flaming Lips — little of the imagery is as striking or eye-filling as what you can see in their live show, though it appears they’ve been holding back on their use of vaginal images, saving it all for this movie, which has more vaginas than some porn and more surrogate vaginas than some Guillermo del Toro movies.

This isn’t the freewheelming semi-narrative Lips of songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” or “Race for the Prize.” This is “The Observer” on repeat, or “Vein of Stars” remixed: kinda hypnotic, kinda boring. Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg both turn up, briefly and hilariously, but the anti-stoner in me is compelled to point out that not too much actually happens during this feature film. What with the celebrity cameos and lack of forward momentum, I started to get the feeling that it would’ve been made an awesome forty-minute holiday special.

Even at eighty-five minutes, though, I’m not exactly sure why this movie took seven years to make. I mean, yes, it’s a charming bit of backstory, and I do treasure the movie’s handmade look; the cobbled-together sets and junky props give its spacey melancholy a sense of authenticity. It’s also just plain fun to look at. But let’s not pretend the Flaming Lips are, say, Flaming Lips fans with day jobs to slog through, charging their movie to credit cards piecemeal. Warner Brothers Records paid for this thing, at least in part, and little apart from the sound design seems like something that would take longer than a few months to put together. Yes, you can argue that the Flaming Lips do have day jobs making music and stuff, but they put out all of two records during the production of Christmas on Mars. James Cameron may not have made a real movie since Titanic, but he managed to put out several gospel records (OK, I made that up) (as far as I know).

All productivity and rewatchability issues aside, the experience of Christmas on Mars is still sort of worthwhile, for that cracked-out sound design, and for the fact that your audience may or may not contain a team of cheering Santa Clauses, and you won’t be sure if they were hired to sit there and watch the movie with you, or if they’re just really dedicated fans, or if they’re the latter who talked the Flaming Lips into the former. Wondering that while watching a test-tube Mars baby emit screeching noise-rays… that, my friends, is the Flaming Lips I remember and love.