The year is 1973, author Michael Crichton is premiering his theatrical debut, Westworld. A science-fiction western in which the ultrarich visit a technologically advanced theme park offering unprecedented immersion thanks to the use of cyborgs. Apt then, that a film about the unknown and very dangerous utilization of digital technology, would also be the first feature film to employ the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Four years later, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope would release, dominating popular culture with its charming cast and impressive blend of CGI and practical effects. Amongst the sea of artists and creators on the design floor of A New Hope, was Phil Tippett; a stop-motion animator hired on by George Lucas to direct a scene of holographic space chess. Three years pass, it’s 1980, and Empire Strikes Back has released to even higher acclaim. At the apex of Empire’s effects is Phil Tippett’s pioneering co-creation of “go motion”, an iteration of stop-motion animation that makes the movement of objects less jarring.
As the years pass and advancements in film technology continue to improve, Tippett remains attached to seemingly every major spectacle of the animation and effects world. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Phil Tippett. Jurassic Park? Phil Tippett. Starship Troopers? Phil Tippett. Robocop and Robocop 2? Phil Tippett. Yet, upon completion of his work on Robocop 2 in 1990, Tippett began another project. Just a small three minute clip of various creature designs that would be the catalyst for a deeply personal film thirty years in the making.
That film is Mad God. A grueling, unsettling, and perplexing empathetic stop motion project that once again showcases Tippett’s unique creativity and detail in spades. Mad God follows “The Assassin”, a being of unknown origin who descends into a hellish, apocalyptic landscape to deliver a package. Throughout his journey, he’s attacked by hostile mutations, tortured by deranged doctors, eaten by mechanical beasts. His insides are crushed into a liquid used to create weapons of mass destruction, his eyelids are forced open as- ahem. Mad God is a portrait of a thoroughly unwelcoming, hostile world. Its environmental design is full of paradoxes and non-sequiturs. Tippett, in a genuine but unintentionally fatal decision, provides little explanation for what any of Mad God means. Is it a critique of war? Possibly. Mad God is full of moments of inexplicable pity, of trying to understand why so much despair came to fruition. Is it a tale of survival? Certainly not, as nearly every sentient creature in this hellscape is either an oppressor or a victim. Mad God comes close to posing these questions of suffering and causality, but it’s ensnared too deeply by its own meticulous artistry. It’s unfortunately too content to merely display these feelings of dread and despair, never manifesting them into a cohesive vision.
In many ways, Mad God is a culmination of Tippett’s complaints with modern film. It’s excessive need to over explain. It’s interconnected self-referentiality. It’s sanitized, easily digestible and wholly apathetic presentation. It’s a noble feat then to put forth a project so intentionally designed to upset, to be abrasive. Still, it makes the experience of watching Mad God no less unsatisfying. Perhaps it was lost in its thirty year translation or perhaps it was never there, but the sheer environmental and aesthetic detail of Mad God can only distract from its abstract pointlessness for so long. There’s a timeless cult film buried in the muddied rubble of Mad God’s disorientating world. But one can only stomach so much mutilation, massacre, and filth without reprieve or a grasp at meaning.
Mad God is transfixing and revolting. Impossibly original and painfully trite. It’s an irradiated, mythic project of immense effort and sublime detail. It’s a true blessing for the special effects aficionados and a testament to the drive of a singular vision. But most importantly, throughout it all- never even for a moment, is Mad God for anyone other than Phil Tippett. And that’s perfectly alright.
Mad God will be available in select theaters and on Shudder on June 16th, 2022. Check back soon for an interview with Phil Tippett on the meaning and creation of Mad God later this week.