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Phil Tippett’s Mad God Is a Joyful Celebration of Stop-Motion Ick
Rejoice in vileness! Rejoice!
Some reviewers of Phil Tippett’s remarkable stop motion dystopian oddity Mad God have characterized the film as bleak or disturbing. Tippett certainly uses horror imagery and splatters the screen copiously with blood and less respectable fluids. But lurking beneath the steampunk slime and gothic murk is a decidedly exhilarating exercise in visceral, boisterously unrestrained creativity. This is a weird vision which revels in its ability to realize every snaggle-tooth and rolling eyeball of its weirdness.
Tippett’s a stop-motion animation legend; he worked on the original Star Wars trilogy and on Jurassic Park. He started to develop Mad God in 1990, but became discouraged with the rise of CGI, and decided that stop motion did not have much of a future. Friends and colleagues encouraged him to the project up again, though, and in the 2010s he did so. A boost from a Kickstarter campaign allowed him to fund it, and he finally finished the film in 2021, 30 years after he began.
Mad God is wordless and action and characters are both abstract; it’s about atmosphere more than narrative. You are there to see Kurosawa-like mist drift through a field of nailed skulls on pikes as they gently clatter in the wind, or to watch a diving bell lit from the inside descend seemingly forever through mysterious Cyclopean structures, which could be rock or bone or coral. The point is to get lost in the landscape, not to find out what’s going on.
Still, there is a plot of sorts. The Assassin, dressed in what looks like a World War I mask and gas mask, is lowered into a desolate landscape where human-like creatures labor amidst monsters and machinery and are squelched by both. He sets a suitcase bomb, but before he can activate it he’s captured by some sort of slithering cyborg thing, which drags him to a sadistic hospital. There he is tortured for an indeterminate period of time, until finally a squalling larvae Eraserhead-like infant is pulled from his bleeding insides. The infant is carried by a nurse to a carriage-like creature covered in scraps with a bird mask, who delivers it to a mottled-face alchemist. The alchemist kills the baby and transforms it into shimmering crystals, which he uses to (maybe?) create another universe. The new world blossoms swiftly and then is immediately defaced by anarchists before explosions reduce it to decadence.
The workers getting smashed in half by flying slabs, the torture surgery, the murdered child, and the new universe falling into decay: that does all seem rather grim. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the room of giants in electric chairs whose bowels constantly discharge a repulsive liquid used for some nefarious purpose or other. Practically every image is a deliberately vile nightmare of sickening body horror and cruelty.
The ugliness is so hyperbolically over the top it starts to feel like parody, or like exuberance. Maybe the surgeon’s first incision makes you flinch, but by the time he’s just pulling wet organs out one after the other and blood is splashing on every random surface in dramatic “splorts!” you almost have to start to giggle. And that goes double for the pretty garden inhabited by weird yellow-headed critters with holes in their faces into which they insert squirming worms until the alchemist chucklingly sics a twisted spider-creature on them. That’s not tragedy or pathos or horror. That’s “I am the baddest animator in every imaginable realm, and I am going to unleash some slithering awfulness that will blow your mind, baby. Look at that spider thing!”
The Mad God, in this context, is not some evil alchemist. It’s Tippett himself, who builds and destroys and births awesome squirming impossibilities. The sense of wonder as the crystals coalesce into a new creation is the wonder of art bringing something painstakingly, gracefully, miraculously out of nothing.
As for the shining buildings collapsing instantly into broken nightmare—again, that’s not a vision of failure or collapse. It’s just another wonderful transformation. After all, if you can make anything in the world, why build boring clean skyscrapers when you can splorp together monsters with too many orifices, or a roomful of battered, wheezing machinery?
Hollywood these days is obsessed with smooth CGI lines and gleaming digital heroes. But Tippett revels in the lumpy, the damp, and the clunky. On the first day the Mad God created ooze. And he saw it was a blast.
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