Christmas stories and tales of space exploration both appeal to an audience’s sense of wonder, so it’s only natural that filmmakers have occasionally gone to both wells simultaneously. There’s a world of difference, however, between crass kiddie fare like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and the Flaming Lips’ midnight cult-ready Christmas on Mars (produced piecemeal over a period of eight years and completed in 2008). And somewhere in between lies The Christmas Martian, a barely feature-length Canadian effort from 1971, which is a different kettle of back bacon altogether, even if it has some overlap with its better-known American cousins.
The most notorious of the three is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which was roundly mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991. Made at a time when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up, the film doesn’t even hint at making its green-skinned aliens analogues for the Russians. Instead, its kid-friendly plot posits them as a race whose children are all morose and lethargic because they’ve forgotten how to have fun (or, to be more precise, they never learned in the first place). The solution, provided to Martian ruler Kimar (short for King Martian) by 800-year-old wise man Chochem, is to give the children of Mars a Santa Claus to match the one they’ve seen on television (which picks up Earth programs like the interminable visit to Santa’s workshop that opens the movie). Kimar decides that nothing less than the genuine article will do, though, and leads of small raiding party to Earth so they can abduct Kris Kringle and put him to work for them.
Along for the trip are the rebellious Voldar, who believes their children are fine just the way they are (although it’s a fair bet he has none of his own), and mincing doofus Dropo, accurately described as “the laziest man on Mars.” They also pick up young Earthlings Billy and Betty Foster, who lead them straight to the jolly old elf himself and need to be taken back to Mars along with him so Santa’s disappearance can remain a mystery. (This, as it turns out, makes no difference whatsoever since Mrs. Claus is able to ID her husband’s kidnappers, so Kimar might as well have taken Voldar’s suggestion and flushed the pint-sized troublemakers out the airlock.)
Once installed on Mars, Santa is able to elicit laughter from Kimar’s children, Bomar and Girmar (short for Boy Martian and Girl Martian), in a scene director Nicholas Webster holds on far too long for it to become anything other than disturbing. He is then put to work (along with Billy and Betty because Mars has no child-labor laws) making toys for the entire planet’s offspring with the aid of an automated toy machine. This allows screenwriter Glenville Mareth (working from a story by producer Paul L. Jacobson) to feint at addressing the difference between genuine craftsmanship and soulless, assembly-line products (“This never happened when we made toys by hand,” Santa laments when the machine is sabotaged by Voldar and his followers), but considering the source such commentary rings hollow. A little more successful is the whimsical runner about the food pills everyone on Mars consumes for nourishment that come in such distinct flavors as hamburger, buttered asparagus, mashed potato, chocolate layer cake, beef stew, chocolate ice cream, malted milk, banana split, and whipped cream. Like many other niggling details, why Martian food pills taste like Earth delicacies is never explained.
By the time the credits roll, Voldar has been vanquished and Mars has gained its own Santa in the form of Dropo, allowing Claus and the kids to return to Earth. How long they’ve been away is never firmly established, though, and while the disappearance of Billy and Betty is reported in an early news bulletin, there’s no follow-up and we never meet their parents, so for all we know they’re not missed by anyone.
The opposite is true of The Christmas Martian’s Frankie and Cathy, two Quebecois children who spend the first day of their school vacation in the company of the hyperactive title character, a humanoid alien in a knit spacesuit who’s stranded on Earth while he repairs his flying saucer. (Unlike Billy and Betty’s unseen parents, Frankie and Cathy’s have the presence of mind to ask after them whenever director Bernard Gosselin cuts away to them.)
At first, Frankie and Cathy are wary of the strange Visitor (as he’s called), but not so wary that they don’t sneak aboard his spacecraft and panic when he pushes a button that buries them in candy (shades of Mars’s food pills). The three of them become fast friends, though, and once his ship is operational he flies them over stock footage of the Sahara Desert and the Arctic before depositing them back home. Meanwhile, the Visitor has run-ins with a few other townspeople, including an unfunny running gag wherein he keeps borrowing snow equipment from Frankie and Cathy’s uncle, who reports it stolen each time only to discover it’s been returned by the time the police show up.
The end result of this is the requisite posse of snowmobilers who chase the Visitor back to his ship and encircle it, a situation made less than threatening by the fact that none of them are armed. Of course, all the Visitor has to do to escape from them is take off, but the cops eventually catch up with him when he shows up at Frankie and Cathy’s house dressed as Santa to deliver a model of his ship. This causes some confusion because their father has also donned a Santa suit — all the better for both of them to get arrested, I guess. The Visitor leaves Daddy holding the bag, though, when he transports himself back to his ship. Why he couldn’t do that earlier instead of leaping around like a prat is a mystery with no solution.
Unresolved mysteries are also the order of the day in Christmas on Mars, a long-gestating passion project for Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, who not only wrote the script and co-directed, but also plays the green-skinned, pointy-eared, multiple-antennaed Alien Super-Being who takes an interest in the first Earth colony on Mars as its inhabitants are in the process of celebrating their first (and possibly last) Christmas there. Much like the glum Bomar and Girmar in Santa Claus Conquers the Martian, the colonists are, almost to a man, irretrievably depressed and/or irritable. One of the few exceptions is Fred Armisen’s comparatively upbeat Noachis, who believes very strongly in the power of singing Christmas carols.
This is especially true of the film’s dangerously naïve protagonist, Major Syrtis, played by Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. It could even be said that he’s responsible for the dire straits the outpost is in because he left behind a whole box of backup equipment to make room for his Christmas paraphernalia, which doesn’t have the spirit-raising effect he thought it would. (Case in point: His hand-picked Santa, Ed Fifteen, who runs outside without a space suit to meet the Alien Super-Being and promptly asphyxiates.)
This is just one of the myriad problems relayed to the outpost’s beleaguered captain, who’s frankly (and justifiably) more concerned about the breakdown of their oxygen generator and the arrival of the curiously passive Alien. If only to get them both out of his hair, the captain gives the Alien to Major Syrtis to be his replacement Santa, which works out great for all involved. That includes the first baby born on Mars, which is being kept in isolation along with its mother and which the major has been having disturbing visions about. (In case anyone misses the symbolism, Coyne and his co-directors place the legend “Bethlehem 2055” in large letters and numbers in the background of a few shots.)
One of the most endearing things about Christmas on Mars is the handmade look of many of the props and costumes. No two space suits look alike, and there are parts of the set that are unmistakably repurposed household appliances. For all that, Bradley Beesley’s black-and-white cinematography (punctuated by brief, psychedelic color sequences) is stunningly beautiful. Coupled with the Flaming Lips’ spacey score and the trippy special effects, Christmas on Mars is the perfect pick for anyone looking for something offbeat this holiday season. They just need to be prepared to be ambushed by visuals like the “vaginal-headed marching band from Hell” that surly psychiatrist Adam Goldberg (the film’s other professional actor) describes to Major Syrtis during a particularly counterproductive therapy session. That’s a sight that, once seen, cannot easily be unseen.
Coincidentally, the same year Christmas on Mars unleashed hellish marching band members with vaginas for heads upon the unsuspecting masses, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was dusted off by Cinematic Titanic, Joel Hodgson’s post-Mystery Science Theater riffing collective, and given a fresh shellacking. The other MST3K offshoot RiffTrax has also tackled it, meaning potential viewers have their pick of three district versions of the film — four if you count the original sans comedic commentary, but that’s not an option I recommend. As for The Christmas Martian, in spite of the fact that it can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, that is also best left alone. Even those with fond memories of watching it as children will be in for a rude awakening should they revisit it with adult eyes.