Thursday, July 22, 2010

Christmas in July: Christmas on Mars (2008)

My interest in the music of The Flaming Lips pretty much begins and ends with the Beavis & Butt-head segment making fun of their video for "She Don't Use Jelly," but I was sort of charmed by this ramshackle avant-garde film about isolated crew members on a Martian space station celebrating Christmas while pondering existential questions about the meaning of space travel. It was cobbled together by the band and a handful of friends (recognizable faces Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg show up in small parts) over the course of several years, and has an obvious handmade quality that is endearing in its low-budget way (much of the space station's equipment is clearly made out of household appliances and toys).

And although the movie starts out with some random psychedelic imagery that makes it seem like it's going to be more of a music video than a narrative, there's more of a plot than I was expecting. The Lips' Steven Drozd plays the main character, who's tortured by visions of disaster on the space station and is pinning all his hopes on the birth of some sort of artificially conceived baby within an isolation chamber (in a warped take on the nativity story). He's also trying to put on a Christmas pageant for his fellow astronauts, but the guy playing Santa kills himself by running out of an airlock, and his replacement is a mysterious all-powerful alien played by Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who also directed the movie.

It's totally weird and often confusing, of course, but it's also pretty funny at times, and the movie owes as much to Ed Wood as it does to the more frequently cited influences of 2001 and Solaris. The station's commander, a hilarious caricature of a Southern military leader, provides the best jokes, but Goldberg and Armisen also offer little bits of humor in their small roles. And Coyne has something kind of sweet and a little profound to say about the power of Santa Claus as a symbol of hope and the best of humanity, as well as about the dangers of human hubris in exploring space. A lot of this movie is clunky and pretentious and weird for the sake of being weird, but underneath the artsiness is a surprising amount of entertainment value.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It provides hope in dark times.

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