Mad God

Phil Tippett’s long-gestating stop-motion animation epic is a frenzied and frequently deranged Dantean odyssey.

A passion project 30 years in the making – it was started during 1990’s RoboCop 2, shelved, picked up again, and then finally developed with Kickstarter funding – Mad God’s production odyssey feels fully reflected on screen. It’s a film that continually evolves before your eyes, a living, fleshy, horrifying object borne from the mind of Phil Tippett, a stop-motion animator best known for his effects work on Star Wars, RoboCop and Jurassic Park.

With a non-verbal narrative structured according to its creator’s frenzied nightmare logic, the film’s story is always in service of macabre visuals that feel plucked from a William Blake painting and thrown together with whatever was lying around in Tippett’s garage. The director has attributed the project’s prolonged development to him letting different ideas and inspirations percolate over time; the result plays as a hybrid of The Brothers Quay and Tippett’s own past projects.

There’s a griminess to the film’s design that sets it apart from most contemporary stop-motion work. Where something like Coraline was spooky and unsettling, Mad God is intentionally ugly, fusing meat, fluid and rusted metal to nauseating effect. Bodies are crushed by a variety of objects, mulched by giant industrial juicers to feed some monstrous… thing. Creatures with mouths full of what seem to be actual dentures crush whatever is in their path. And that’s just the first 10 minutes.

Through that violence, Mad God feels like it’s exorcising humanity’s sins and self-destructive impulses all at once. Opening with fanfare and what looks like a crude facsimile of the Tower of Babel, the film instantly feels monumental thanks to its incredible sound design (along with some pretty great compositing), despite our acute awareness of its hand-crafted nature and the actual scale of the puppets. The film’s lofty notions extend to an intense atmosphere of religiosity, starting with a passage from Leviticus scrolling down the screen, heeding apocalypse: “Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.”

Mad God duly descends into that ruin, a world with its own macabre social structure but one which is only explained visually. There’s no dialogue, just floaty prog music accompanying an unnamed masked man – known only as The Assassin – as he descends. Tippett obfuscates his film’s narrative in a way that only adds to its awe-inspiring terror. There’s no discernible plot other than The Assassin trying to take a suitcase full of dynamite… somewhere, sidestepping various horrors on the way.

Tippett reveals the machinations of this sprawling world through various non-sequiturs, such as two ape-like giants having a gladiatorial match, or bug monsters gambling. Some of these digressions don’t entirely work – namely the ones featuring live actors in costume, or when frames are removed from shots to emulate stop-motion. Long sequences featuring a mad, long-nailed scientist feel like a wheel-spinning distraction from The Assassin’s Dantean journey.

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