"A fantastical and disturbing humanistic freakout!" shouts the cover of the Flaming Lips' seven years in-the-making DVD/CD Christmas on Mars, but the film and its music aren't nearly as overtly wacky or sentimental as might be expected based on that description, or the other work the Lips released while they were working on the movie. In fact, Christmas on Mars is about as subtle and restrained as a film that includes emerald-green aliens, hallucinations of eating babies and a labia-headed marching band can be. Its mostly grainy black-and-white visuals and slow pacing give a surprisingly understated feel to its story, which involves the extreme technical difficulties Major Syrtis (played by the band's Steven Drozd) and the rest of his Mars colonization team face on Christmas Eve, and the alien visitor (Wayne Coyne) who helps them. It's difficult for artists as prominent as the Flaming Lips to make a true cult movie -- which, more often than not, comes from out of nowhere and finds its audience organically, usually through years of word of mouth and passing bootlegged copies from one friend to another -- but Christmas on Mars is as ambitious, strange, and homespun as most underground films. It plays like a three-way hybrid of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eraserhead, and Plan 9 from Outer Space, throwing together moments of haunted isolation, utter strangeness, kitsch and uneven acting in ways that gel surprisingly often. Even so, the film is strangest and most successful in its lonely silences than in its blatantly weird moments.
The look and, not surprisingly, the sound of Christmas on Mars are its greatest accomplishments; its music and sound design (courtesy of the band and their longtime collaborator Dave Fridmann) are more expressive than its dialogue. The film's music is a true score, with no pop songs or musical numbers to break its spooky, sparkling flow. Just as the movie feels like a mix of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Ed Wood, the music suggests equal parts of Bernard Herrmann's swirling tension ("The Secret of Immortality: This Strange Feeling, This Impossible World"), Tchaikovsky's magical, music box wonder ("The Horrors of Isolation: The Celestial Dissolve, Triumphant Hallucination, Light Being Absorbed") and a bit of electronic eccentricity somewhere between Brian Eno and Joe Meek ("Your Spaceship Comes from Within," "The Distress Signals of Celestial Objects"). The score switches between desolation and vivid fantasy, two of science fiction's biggest tropes: "Once Beyond Hopelessness" bookends Christmas on Mars, and though it closes the album by setting the controls for optimism, its gloomy synth melody captures the film's isolation and the colonists' despair, sounding as though it's careening through space, leaving trails of distortion in its wake. In between, the music underscores the film's ambivalent womb imagery with the luminous harps and vocals of "In Excelsior Vaginalistic" and nightmarishly majestic "Gleaming Armament of Marching Genitalia" and revels in the beauty of outer space with the two-part piece "The Distance Between Mars and the Earth," which moves from dark and lavish to dreamy and almost romantic.
The set's extras include interviews with all of the Flaming Lips and "Inside Wayne's Endless Yellow Notepad," which features Coyne's sketches and storyboards and how they translated onto the screen. Christmas on Mars is easily the band's most ambitious undertaking since Zaireeka, and while it isn't quite as successful as that album was, it still offers the impressive multimedia experience that Flaming Lips fans have come to love.