Vagina-headed Christmas

Flaming Lips flick decidedly weird

There’s a special something you should do before you hunker down and attempt to watch The Flaming Lips’ long-awaited psychedelic sci-fi horror film Christmas on Mars . While it’s not absolutely necessary it certainly adds another dimension to the viewing of the film. If you decide to pass that’s fine but be forewarned that certain scenes just won’t make as much sense as they would if you had chosen to partake.

That thing you should do of course is watch a 10-minute scene from Fearless Freaks a 2005 documentary that delved into the fantastic intersection of boundless joy and abject delirium that has defined the Lips throughout their decades-long history. The scene in question comes about two-thirds of the way through when Wayne Coyne offers a tour of the Christmas on Mars “set” — the driveway to his backyard. The enthusiastic frontman who also wrote directed and co-starred in the film shows off a wealth of salvaged detritus from old Styrofoam to decommissioned underground fuel tanks all painted and thrown together into something that when viewed in the right state of mind resembles outer space.

Still it’s not as though someone who missed out on the clip would have a hard time identifying Christmas on Mars as an ultra-low-budget home project. The hi-tech doodads are conspicuously similar to kitchen appliances and the acting ranges from awkwardly charming — Coyne and fellow Lips Stephen Drozd and Michael Ivins fall into this category — to cringe-inducing. Often reading lines that were written minutes earlier off sheets of loose-leaf taped to their fellow actors’ chests the band’s mild-mannered friends and family stumble through scenes replete with profanity and nonsensical space babble.

The story weirdly merges Lips lore with standard B-movie fare focusing for the most part on Drozd’s Major Syrtis as he meanders around a space station on Mars. He interacts with various secondary characters and attempts to sort out his plans for some sort of Christmas celebration. His days are haunted by recurring visions of mutilated infants and to make matters worse his Santa has gone completely haywire and run out the airlock to his death. The Major seems to be on the brink of total collapse until a green-skinned messiah (Coyne) arrives in a huge bubble to save the day. Meanwhile just like at your average Lips show Ivins seems to be the only one who has any clue what the hell is going on.

There’s a lot more going on than what’s immediately obvious. As the aforementioned documentary wastes no time informing its audience the movie was made during a period of turmoil for the band — Drozd’s ever-worsening heroin addiction. Coyne is hardly exploring new artistic territory when his characters affirm (over and over) that the human mind can’t handle the oblivion of life in outer space but his script takes on a compelling new depth when viewed as a plea to a junkie by a longtime friend whose concern has reached panic levels.

Shortly after the original round of filming the band sequestered themselves to record Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Somehow Drozd came out of the studio clean and managed to stay that way. Still for those who know to look for it the outer-space-as-heroin-addiction allegory resonates as the film’s prevailing message. Fortunately Coyne has the good sense to buffer this dark aspect with generous portions of goofiness from oddly timed out-of-key outbursts of song by Fred Armisen to tirades of racist invective from a topless weight-lifting commanding officer. Just as the mostly black-and-white stock is infused with blasts of vibrant colour at important moments the mostly bleak score features meticulously timed swells that give shape to some otherwise lifeless scenes. While it may be less zany and more depressing than the average fan would expect it’s a Lips masterstroke through and through. If you can see yourself sitting through a scene in which a vagina-headed marching band stomps on the head of a helpless infant you can probably handle it. Otherwise move along.