Phil Tippett, animator and visual effects artist whose work on Jurassic Park, Return of the Jedi, and Robocop has solidified him as one of Hollywood’s greatest behind-the-scenes technicians, began the project that grew to be Mad God in the very early 90s. He shelved the project shortly after, believing that advances in animation had rendered stop-motion all but obsolete. It would remain untouched for twenty years until he and a team of animators, partially funded by Kickstarter, began working on its completion over another decade. Nothing stirs up interest in a film quite like a long gestation. A movie said to be thirty years in the making leads to an assumption of richness, epicness, passion, a creator pouring decades of labor into something that bears the mark of their soul. That’s the reputation that follows Mad God around. Shudder, proving itself ever more these days to be one of the most essential streaming sites, took it on for a mid-June release.
Mad God, on a purely visual level, contains so much detail that it’s nearly impossible to describe and almost a disservice to its brilliance to really try. Tippett’s elaborate, maximalist, beautifully repulsive world building continually reintroduces and reimagines itself in a fluid, Rube Goldberg structure where nonsensical and bewildering spaces lead into one another with an intuitive but surreal logic. As an animator and artist Tippett has done masterful work, but he doesn’t neglect the directorial side of things, exploring his world through a deliriously unchained camera and expressionistic lighting techniques. It overwhelms the senses and resists easy explanation, but may be most simply described as the result of putting the work of Ridley Scott, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Ray Harryhausen through a meat grinder.
The film opens on an image out of a silent biblical epic—a spiral shaped tower in a hellish, red landscape on which countless figures ascend towards a robed, god-like figure. The first blaring notes of Dan Wool’s sublime, progressive soundtrack play. A decaying scroll from a tyrannical power decrees a promise to lay waste to cities, to subject their inhabitants to unimaginable suffering. It’s a brazenly twisted reimagining of the Tower of Babel story, imagining God not only as angry and guarded but insane and malevolent. When this God destroys the tower, spreads out its people, and separates them through language, it results not only in an unequal and fragmented world but a nightmare, a bottomless chasm that contains pulsating, stratified levels of misery and chaos.
A soldier in a gas mask known only as The Assassin, carrying a map and a suitcase bomb, descends in a diving bell to ever more subterranean depths—layers of skeleton-packed loam, a stringy black forest with hostile insects, abandoned ruins of conic, adobe-like dwellings, a dystopic city overrun by mutants that seem to be the result of both deliberate experimentation and some kind of nuclear fallout, who do nothing but dismember and devour one another, or else live in abject squalor. Humans are seen as silhouettes in apartment blocks relishing the mayhem.
From the opening all the way to this initial foray into the underworld, Mad God sets up a bold dichotomy of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, but all suffering from the same violence and decrepitude, sometimes physical and sometimes moral. Despite their gory incongruousness with the real world, the heightened scenarios make clear references to relatable, everyday evils: poverty-induced crime, urban decline, barbaric cultural values, callous health care, an unrelenting and exploitative economy, and a nonsensical system of messy bureaucracy.
The Assassin’s decaying map falls further apart as he descends deeper into the earth and therefore deeper into meaninglessness and unintelligibility. Giant humanoid figures are electrocuted until they liquify and their flowing remains pour into the mouth of the skeletal, rotting face of a semi-organic machine that appears part creature and part mechanical infrastructure. Pale zombies made of what looks like gristle and cat hair willingly submit to arduous and deadly labor, constructing gigantic, flying monoliths or feeding mutant bugs into grinders, and in the process being gruesomely killed by their own creations or willingly allowing themselves to be burned or squashed to death so as to escape their heinous existence. Their master is a moving screen displaying the burned and bleeding mouth of some tyrannical overlord shouting orders in an unintelligible infant gurgle.
Soon the film concludes the Assassin’s journey, launching into a bifurcated narrative surrounding two God-like figures that amplifies and broadens the themes of power struggle to cosmic heights. A feeble old man with long fingernails and Satanic red robes (played by director Alex Cox in an unexpected but welcome cameo) inhabits a tower filled with an army of identical assassins. An ethereal wraith clad in flowing black garments, a plague doctor mask, and a wide-brim black hat fringed with strings of bones carries a rodent baby to a deformed troll called The Alchemist. Things go from revolting to mesmerizing, become far more opaque, and interconnect in baffling ways.
The wraith, first seen in that biblical opening shot at the beginning of the film atop the would-be Tower of Babel, may be the titular Mad God. So, too, could the old man with his countless creations whom he sends as crusaders turned sacrificial lambs. Whether the two figures are adversaries, cohabitants, or even known to each other is unclear, but they have firm roles in the cyclical narrative of the film. It cannot be denied that the wraith resembles an angel of death, aptly so if one is to assume it created a world so full of death and destruction. Yet, that very destruction necessitates the act of creation. Something must be created to be destroyed. The old man, conversely, comes off as a much more benevolent figure who nevertheless sends an endless line of footmen to their deaths in a process that seems to either attempt to dismantle everything or repeat the cycle of creation and destruction.
The final word on the fate of this universe and the pitiable beings within is up to the viewer. The Mad God who strikes down the Tower of Babel and divides its people, the Capitalist that squashes the will of Workers, the Powers that perpetuate such grave and repellant injustices all form a complex and inscrutable system that may or may not have a kill switch. As the feeble old man looks down into the depths, he can only hope that maybe this time it will be different. | Nic Champion
Mad God premiers June 16th on Shudder and will also be screened at the Webster Film Series from July 1st to July 3rd.