Cheese connoisseurs agree that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a prime hunk of cheddar. Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a holiday tradition for snarksters around the world. It often shows up on lists of the worst movies of all time. The sets are cheap, the robots are cardboard, and the snow is styrofoam. Without a doubt, this is a deeply silly film. And yet, I believe it is far better than its reputation would suggest. Am I calling it a misunderstood masterpiece? Absolutely not. But what I am saying is that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a very merry movie. Jolly, even! It's an infectiously cheerful Christmas confection that's as sweet as fruitcake and twice as nutty. If holiday movies are supposed to make you feel warm and happy, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a darn good one.
Part Plan 9 from Outer Space and part Rankin/Bass special, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a peculiar concoction, to say the least. Kimar, ruler of the Martian people, is displeased by how sullen his children (Girmar and Bomar) are. All they want to do is watch Earth television, especially the shows about Santa Claus. In an effort to cheer his kids up, Kimar orders the kidnapping of Santa Claus in hopes of lifting their spirits. Unfortunately, things get complicated when two Earth kids are brought to Mars. Polar bears and cardboard robots soon follow.
Before I get into the rest of the film, I do have to express one point of disappointment: Santa Claus does not, in fact, conquer the Martians (at least not in the traditional sense). He spreads good will and seasonal warmth, but at no point does he lay the smackdown. If you wanna see Santa kick butt and chew candy canes, you'll have to watch this year's Violent Night. After accepting that Santa is no Ellen Ripley here, there's plenty to admire.
For starters, the cheap sets and costumes (by the "custume" designer, according to the credits) are actually a major boon. The entire film has a handmade quality that reminds me of an old toy you may find in an antique shop. Sure, it's flawed and shabby, but that just endears you to it. It achieves a sort of accidental surrealism. In a weird way, it almost predicts Tim Burton with its combination of low-budget sci-fi imagery and a Disney-like sense of whimsy. It's not a gorgeous film by conventional standards, but I find its budget winter wonderland immensely appealing.
How would I describe the Martians themselves? Basically, I think of them as the Great Gazoo from The Flintstones! They look nearly identical, from their green skin to their funny little helmets. The odd thing about that is this movie came out one year before Gazoo made his debut. Did one of the most infamous sci-fi movies of all time inspire an iconic cartoon creation? We'll never know for sure, but I sure say so! If that is indeed true, then Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has left an indelible mark on animation history.
This film boasts a plethora of iconic characters: Dropo, the child-like Martian goofball, the sinister (and Frank Zappa-esque) Voldar, a truly marvelous no-budget robot, and the most wonderfully ridiculous polar bear you will ever see. However, I want to focus on our titular titan of tinsel, Santa Claus. Played by a man named John Call, this Santa will make you believe. People always talk about how risible the costumes are or how the Martian makeup is clearly smeared on, but they never talk about just how genuinely good Call is as Ol' Saint Nick. There is a twinkle in his eye and a sincerity in his voice that warms the heart like a chestnut on an open fire. No matter how severe the situation gets (Santa's life is threatened more than once), Mr. Claus never loses that festive joviality. He embodies everything that is beautiful about the season, the way Santa ought to.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a silly movie, but it's a silly movie alive with the spirit of Christmas. Any film in which nations of the world unite to save Santa is impossible to hate. Every "flaw" just gives it an unusual sense of wonder. Without even the slightest trace of irony, I love this movie. It's too earnest to be completely dismissed. Plus, any movie with a theme song that catchy has to have some merit. Hooray for Santa Claus!