The effect master’s magnum opus is a fiercely unique and uncommercial descent into madness
Mad God is currently screening at Quebec’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
In Worse Than The Demon, a short documentary film about the making of Mad God that’s accompanying the film at this year’s Fantasia Festival, effects master Phil Tippett discusses the frustration of being recognized for his craft, yet not being fully able to execute his own personal visions. Whereas his award-winning miniature, stop motion, and CGI work for Hollywood franchises like Star Wars, Robocop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers is heralded and beloved, he’s had very little success convincing studios to buy in on his own ideas and pitches, such as the post-apocalyptic Mutantland which lives only as a proof-of-concept short.
The studios… aren’t wrong. Tippett’s own personal aesthetic lies along a much weirder, darker path than populist entertainment. His love for the freakish and bizarre certainly doesn’t spell box office success for the four-quadrant world, or even really any quadrant.
A pet project that’s been in various stages of production and gestation since the late 80s, Mad God is his most personal and inhospitable work, a descent into a post-apocalyptic hell on earth populated by mutants and monsters. Most of the film is crafted in stop motion and puppetry, though it also mixes in some elements of live action and a little of what I assume is CGI.
It’s grotesquely beautiful, breathtakingly crafted, and staggeringly massive in scope and concept.
It’s also misanthropic, disgusting, and shockingly, wantonly cruel — or at least, its world is.
It’s a little hard to describe exactly what the film is about; at first it seems like a series of vignettes but a loose narrative does form around them which is not wholly indecipherable.
The film’s only point of context is its opening depicting the Tower of Babel, mankind’s monument to blasphemy, struck down by heaven. A scroll depicting Leviticus 26 lays out the curse against those who would defy the Creator: the rest of the film seems to portray the aftermath of that curse. It’s the first and last direct exposition offered, save for a few clues in the credits. The rest of the film plays out dialogue free and in non-linear fashion — or at least that’s my reading; it’s pretty open to interpretation.
In what appears to be a post-apocalyptic future, a character noted in the credits as “The Last Man” (Alex Cox) observes his chaotic world and commands an army of masked figures (his creations?), and sets one of them upon an expedition — a long descent into the bowels of the hellish underworld.
The journey is fraught with myriad treacherous, terrifying, and disturbing sights and wonders, which spiral off into a couple of other bizarre episodes which possibly bring about the end of the world — or maybe a new beginning?
You’re not watching this for the narrative, but for the execution of Tippett’s mad vision of a world that’s gone to hell. Expansive environments, horrifying creatures, and a cruel and damned world. And unlike many animated films, there’s a wildly dynamic camera moving about and taking it all in — it’s anything but stiff.
Perhaps it’s relevant and telling that filmmaker Alex Cox plays the most prominent (and recognizably human) character. As a director, he’s trod a similar path in some ways to Tippett. He’s known for revered films like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, but his career experienced a major downturn; in more recent years he seems to have struggled with finding funding for his visions leading to poorer, cheap looking films that capture little interest. A frustrated creator?
Tippett’s mad vision certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s a near constant-stream of cruel violence and perversions, and many viewers will be turned off by its depictions of murder, defecation, mutilation, and masturbation.
But for appreciators of Tippett and his genius, this is his magnum opus. A staggering work that’s been rattling around in his head and brought into reality for over thirty years. A towering application of masterful craft that you can’t take your eyes off of — even if sometimes you might really, really want to.