Warning: this film is quite violent and disturbing. Vaya con Dios.
Well, I hope y’all like unrelenting visions of suffering suspended within visceral and bleak hellscapes beyond your wildest nightmares.
I knew you would. You little sicky.
Much hay has been made about Phil Tippett’s 30-years-in-the-making, excessively alienating passion project, Mad God (2021). Tippett is a stop-motion (or rather go-motion) pioneer and special effects maestro who has worked on films like Star Wars, Robocop, Jurassic Park, Willow, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Starship Troopers, Howard the Duck, and more. He even made a stop-motion dinosaur short that was meant to be educational, but was deemed a skosh too graphic.
Tippett’s creatures and worlds have a tangible, crusty scum-bucket quality to them, and, if you’re into that sort of thing, then taking in his most depressing and horrific visions manifested through the culmination of all of his movie tricks and creativity might be for you.
It’s disgusting and monstrous, yet also cathartic and beautifully crafted, but what is it? Mad God plummets the viewer into its dark and slimy world without much context and zero dialogue. We see clunky machines of war and surveillance. We see a sort of Tower of Babel ensconced in clouds and circling monsters. We see an assassin character, looking like a WWI soldier in heavy gear and face-obscuring gas mask. This character is our cipher – a non-character; our gateway into this strange, hellish world.
As the protagonist descends deeper into the bowels of increasingly gruesome mechanical and fleshy levels of ghoulish hopelessness, the densely chaotic interconnected ecosystems of this nightmare realm are divulged. The viewer pieces together that the assassin is on a mission. He is equipped with a time bomb and a map that is ominously disintegrating more and more each time he consults it – a grim portent that we will most likely not be getting out of this lovingly handcrafted hell.
I could explain to you things that happen in this movie. I could give you a blueprint of how each isolated horrific agony bleeds into the next, informing the greater world beyond. I could do that. But that would be robbing you of the nasty experience of seeing it and following that raggedy, putrid thread yourself. And that would be robbing Mad God of the honor of revealing itself to you.
Tippett and company’s inventive brutality and haunting cosmic visuals aside, Dan Wool’s score must also be recognized. The music doesn’t hold your hand any more than the images do, but it is powerful and majestic, like a grim cowboy dirge that somehow manages to provide some respite and comfort from the horror through the mere virtue of becoming familiar.
If I have any complaint, it would be that I wish the whole movie were stop-motion, puppets, and maquettes. There aren’t many live-action humans in this, but the couple that do pop up kind of broke the spell and snapped me out of it in a way that I didn’t get or appreciate fully. Although, it was kind of cool that the main human was played by Alex Cox, the guy who directed Walker (1987) and Repo Man (1984). That was random.
Who is this movie for? I don’t know. Fans of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Tool, or maybe just people really into special effects, stop-motion, and horror.
I’m gonna shoot straight with you: This won’t be for everyone, but I’m a sucker for this type of storytelling; one that is less preoccupied with plot and characters, and more concerned with slowly revealing the mechanics and complex inner workings of a fantasy world concocted out of someone’s warped imagination. I was reminded of Yuichi Yokoyama’s graphic novel, Garden, or the short animations of Ivan Maximov. They wordlessly world build a coherent environment that internally justifies itself. Film is a visual medium, and if you can lure me in and explain your fictional universe through images alone, and make it compelling, odds are I’m going to love it.
I’ve gushed enough and my nightmares have definitely been fueled. If you like your cinema wildly off-kilter and painstakingly personal, then check out Mad God. I believe it is still making the rounds at festivals, but distribution should be forthcoming, and I have no doubt it will be picked up on Shudder and other streaming services. Consult the official website for updates.