Santa Claus Conquers The Martians

December 23, 2014 at 10:57 pm Leave a comment

For 13 years running, I have had a screening of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians with friends. Ever since catching this movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it has been a holiday favorite of mine. It’s been fun to see different reactions to the film from different groups of friends. I realized though, I had never done a write up on this movie. Considering how often I have seen this movie, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on it.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is pretty notorious for being one of the worst holiday films ever made. And for good reason. It’s a mess. There are plenty of comedic reviews out there for this movie. If you’re looking for someone to make fun of it, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Cinematic Titanic versions of the film do a far better job of mocking it than I ever could. What I would like to do is put on my filmmaker hat and explore why this movie doesn’t work and on how many levels.

First, a synopsis. The children of Mars are increasingly discontent. The only joy in their lives is watching Earth television. They learn at such an accelerated pace that they don’t really have a childhood. Kimar (King Martian) takes notice of how depressed his kids are and decides to meet with the High Consul to discuss what is to be done with their children. They take the matter up with Kochim, the 800 year old wise elder of Mars. He points out that the children haven’t been allowed to be kids and they are rebelling against the rigid structure of Martian society. It’s Christmas time on Earth. Watching all of the happiness, joy, and toys on Earth is fanning the flames of depression within the Martian children. Kochim reasons that Mars needs a Santa Claus to bring them happiness, joy, and presents. That settles it, Kimar decided to go to Earth and kidnap Santa. Boldar protests that all of this is nonsense.

Kimar gathers an away team and blasts off in his spaceship for Earth. Dropo, Kimar’s manservant (?) stows away on the spaceship to see Earth and cause all sorts of mischief. Dropo is a misfit in Martian society. A fun loving man-child who often screws things up. The Martians arrive on Earth and become confused when they see the abundance of mall Santas. They land to investigate an run into two children, Billy and Betty. They let the Martians know that there is only one real Santa and his is at the North Pole. The Martians kidnap Billy and Betty to cover their tracks and blast off for the North Pole. Billy and Betty try to warn Santa that the Martians are coming once they land but only get themselves nearly killed. The Martians deploy their robot, Torg, to handle the kidnapping. Torg busts into the workshop. Santa treats him like a toy thus neutralizing Torg. The Martians show up and zap the Elves and Mrs. Claus with their freeze ray then take Santa with them, briefly describing the situation.

The nations of the World learn of this and martial their space forces to blast off and bring Santa home. This amounts to very little beside stock footage from the Air Force padding out a good portion of the film. Billy, Betty, and Santa run into some misadventures with Boldar on the return trip to Mars, making him a fugitive, but they make it to Mars. Upon their arrival, Santa meets with Kimar’s children, Bomar (Boy Martian) and Girmar (Girl Martian). He makes them laugh, which has never happened before. Santa agrees to help the Martians with their child problem. Kimar builds him an automated workshop and demand for toys come in from all over Mars. Meanwhile, Boldar and his group of stooges plan to wreck Santa’s workshop and put an end to this whole matter. When they go to sabotage the machine, Dropo shows up dressed as Santa and they kidnap him. Santa and Kimar quickly fix the machine when Boldar calls in his demands in exchange for Santa’s safe return. The whole thing ends up with Boldar getting attacked by the children with toys, Dropo making an escape from captivity, and Santa declaring Dropo as the Martian Santa. With that all taken care of, Santa, Billy, and Betty blast off for Earth just in time for Christmas Eve.

The reasons this film doesn’t work are many. This film was hobbled with a lack of a budget, which is apparent almost immediately. There also seems to be a lack of any film-making skill that could have help overcome some of the budgetary concerns. But we do have to ask ourselves, what was this movie meant to be? It’s not like they were trying to make Citizen Kane or anything. It was meant to be a Christmas Scifi film for children. Science Fiction was a big deal in the 60’s, when this movie was made. No one at that point had really tried to make a Scifi themed Christmas movie. It seems like a prefect meshing of two different themes that appeal to children. Execution of that vision is really where things went wrong and it starts with the script.

As has been pointed out to me, one of the biggest flaws with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that Santa Claus does not, in fact, conquer any Martians. Most of the Martians were very receptive of him. Boldar and his goons were the only resistance and Santa didn’t conquer him. He was beaten up by toys thrown by children then arrested. Santa does very little in this movie. It’s hard to sustain a concept when your title character is superfluous to the entire story. Santa isn’t even a reactionary character, other than the screen where Boldar attempts to have the children and he shot out an air lock on the space ship. For most of what happens in the movie, Santa just goes along with it. In the end, his enlists Dropo to be the Martian Santa and everyone is fine with that, showing that Santa never really needed to be here. He doesn’t even give Dropo any Santa training. How is Dropo going to deliver toys to every kid on Mars? He could have even done something as simple as touch Dropo with a little bit of Christmas magic but that never happens. Dropo is just kind of on his own here to figure out the whole Santa thing by himself. The point is, while the title Santa Claus Conquers the Martians raises many interesting scenarios in the mind of the potential viewer, no one imagined a movie where Santa doesn’t do anything. I’m not asking to have Santa grab a machine gun and start mowing down Martians. But there are a lot of little things they could have done to increase dramatic tension in the movie, raise the stakes, and give our title character a role in the film.

Which brings me to the next biggest problem with the story, a real lack of conflict. The budget really didn’t help any with this because a lot of what potentially could have happened wouldn’t be feasible without a larger budget. For example, Santa is accepted immediately by the Martian children. Well, we are told so because Bomar and Girmar accept him immediately without question. Granted, they have seen him on television but the movie would have been better served if Santa had to do something to win over the children or convince them that he was real. Then you would have Santa Claus Conquering Martians, winning hearts and minds. It might have drawn comparisons to Miracle on 34th Street but it would have made for some conflict and a much better movie. But I guess that wasn’t what they were going for. The resistance he did face, Boldar, was such a straw-man that the conclusion was a merciful end rather than any kind of victory. Making Boldar a more effective villain with a stronger motivation would have made a world of difference. As it stands now, he is more of a grump than a Grinch. His grand master plan was to wreck their toy-making machine, which they quickly fixed before any real damage was done. What a villain! His kidnapping plot happened by accident when Dropo just happened along, dressed as Santa. It would have taken him half a second and a brain cell to figure out that wasn’t Santa. That also would have made for a better villain and better conflict. Instead, we have a grumpy moron.

There are no shortage of plot holes, large and small, in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. For example, all of the footage of the Air Force and talk of the world’s space programs allying to rescue Santa amounts to nothing but padding. In fact, it’s dropped and never mentioned again after the first act. What I hoped to focus on are the major factors that torpedoed this movie in the scripting phase. The characters aren’t really given much depth or characterization. I would be hard pressed to tell you any character traits of any of the characters aside from Santa, Dropo, and maybe Billy. Even Kimar, whom one could argue is the real main character of the movie, has some questionable decision making. His role as leader of the Martians isn’t very well defined. Not that I needed a break down of the finer points of Martian politics. But a little more clarity on what he is and isn’t able to do as the leader of this planet would have been nice. As it stands now, he seems like a dictator with a few close generals. Boldar is the only person to question him and he doesn’t even have any decent reasons aside from a general hatred for all things. The main question is, why are we letting our children watch Earth programs? Is there no Martian media? If not, maybe it’s time to establish one. After all, how would everyone all over Mars know that they have Santa working for them and that they are getting toys on Christmas Day without a Martian media? The Earth programs are confusing and upsetting their children by seeing what they don’t have. Why not block it? In a more clever movie, they could have made commentary on the Cold War and Iron Curtain using this as a plot device. But no one ever asks the question. And why do they need Santa specifically? In the end, they settle for Dropo. Couldn’t they have created their own Santa all along? Kimar builds Santa a toy making machine, so he didn’t need Santa’s toy making expertise. They never set him up with a delivery system for all the gifts. Nor do they tap Santa’s knowledge in this area. All I am saying is that more characterization would have made for a much better movie. Instead, we just get “because we say so” as the best explanation for the actions of the main characters.

Which brings us to the acting. I’m not going to criticize the acting of the children. They did a fine job of convincing me that they were children. Which is more than I could say for the kid in Terror in the Jungle. Any faults with the children’s performance has more to do with the writing than anything. Kimar seems to be attempting a Charlton Heston impersonation for his performance. Whether this was the actor or director’s decision is hard to say. He does look a little like Heston. He was trying way too hard to be a convince Charlton Heston and it’s one of the more laughable things about this movie. Dropo played a convincing happy-go-lucky man-child. Even if the character is annoying, he nailed it as far as what they wanted him to perform. Boldar gives a one-dimensional villain performance that matches the way the character was written. He is more or less Snidley Whiplash. No complaints there. John Call as Santa Claus is pretty much exactly what you would want out of Central Casting for a Santa. He has a lot of charm to him and his performance is one of the more enjoyable things about this movie. I have never heard one person say they didn’t buy him as Santa. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is so weak in so many areas that lost in the shuffle is that the actors played the roles that were written for them in the way the director asked them to. The material did them no favors but I don’t believe the actors are the reason this movie fails. They seem to be having fun with the whole thing and doing their job. What more can one ask, especially when the script doesn’t give them much to work with.

One final thing I would like to explore is the production itself. The cinematography barely warrants any commentary because the movie is shot like a television show from the era. Even studio lighting. There are a couple scenes where the color temperature changes drastically. That could have been bad film stock or a lighting mistake but it didn’t make or break the movie. It was just a little jarring. This movie was shot on a decommissioned Air Force base in Long Island. Today it is a mall. The sets all look cheap and laughable by today’s standards. Particularly on the North Pole, it couldn’t be more obvious they are in a fake environment. It’s not really fair to judge this by today’s standards though. The fact of the matter is, the sets look only slightly worse than 60’s era television. It seems like most of the people they got to work on this movie were television people and it shows all over in the production. Star Trek and Doctor Who had sets that didn’t look a whole lot better than this at the time. Considering the limitations of the time and the budget, they did what they could. Although it is pretty much the first thing people notice when watching this movie with me over the years. It’s really hard to ignore. One thing they could have done that would have help the production is invest in better green paint for the Martians. Their faces go through many shades of green throughout this movie. Sometimes they don’t even look like they are wearing any green face paint. It ran all over the place and the Martians appear to have botulism in a few scenes. A better grade of paint could have really help keep the illusion alive. Things like Torg the Robot and the Polar Bear whose head piece is clear as day are good for a laugh these days and are some of the most enjoyable things to point out when you are watching this movie these days. I don’t think if they had invested more in those things it would have helped make a better movie. Having them in their adds to the campiness and are what makes it a bad movie classic. I know that’s not what they were going for but at least people remember this movie all these years later.

And that is my last point. For everything Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is and isn’t, it’s memorable. I have seen better holiday movies that left no impression on me. I have seen worse holiday movies that left me feeling mad for watching them. This is a movie you will never forget. From the ear-worm theme song, the cheap sets, the stock footage, the dialogue, to the rocket lighter going through space. Everyone I have watched this movie with has had a good laugh at it’s expense. And having a good laugh at this time of year really is what its all about.

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Entry filed under: Comedy. Tags: .

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