First started in 1987, over thirty years in the making and the subject of much talk, rumour and speculation, Phil Tippett’s Mad God was certainly one of the most anticipated screenings at this year’s Fantasia. Given Tippett’s track record providing stop motion animation for the likes of RoboCop, Starship Troopers and the original Star Wars trilogy there was little doubt it would be a technical tour de force. The real question was how well the personal vision that had sustained the project over those years would resonate with others besides its creator.
Footage of a tower, possibly the Tower of Babel, being swallowed by black clouds and a scroll with an excerpt from the Bible’s Book of Leviticus promising all manner of divine punishment set the tone for Mad God before the title drops.
Then we see a figure in what looks like an old-fashioned diving bell being slowly lowered down a shaft filled with fossilized bones. His only companion is the skeleton of a bird in a cage. He emerges in what looks like the ruins of a small town and begins his journey almost immediately and obliviously crushing what appear to be living garden gnomes. In the background, we see the diving bell returning to the surface leaving him stranded. It only gets stranger, and darker, from there.
Composed of previously seen segments financed by crowdfunding linked by new footage Mad God does indeed live up to expectations on a technical level. As a work of animation, it is astounding. There are some human actors to be seen, most notably mad director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Tombstone Rashomon), but they are few and very far between. Almost everything in this world is animated and the sheer number of creatures inhabiting the film’s world and interacting with each other is amazing.
So is the world they inhabit, incredibly detailed backgrounds filled with familiar figures and items from R2D2 and Robby the Robot to a bust of Beethoven. It’s the rest of the film that will be problematic to many viewers.
Mad God, is for all intents and purposes, plotless. It could be compared to Dante’s Inferno, it is like a tour through hell. But there’s no guide to explain things, no dialogue to help us understand what we’re seeing. Tippett has allegedly cited the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch as an influence on the film’s world and watching it feels like being dropped into one of them.
It’s a collection of ugly images full of pollution and filth, violence and cruelty populated by horribly misshapen creatures doing horrible things to each other. None of it with any context, you’re left to your own interpretations of what you’re seeing, but I can’t imagine anyone finding anything positive in them. Mad God is an exercise in very bleak nihilism. With images like these running through his head, it’s no wonder Tippett ended up spending time in a psychiatric facility.
How viewers react to Mad God’s imagery and lack of narrative will vary widely depending on the person watching. I found the lack of a narrative less of an issue than I usually would. The film’s technical wizardry and the impact of many of the visuals kept my interest and kept me watching. Others will be turned off by the unrelenting flow of ugliness. And some will find it a plotless collection of atrocities. whatever the reaction, if you have the stomach for it, I would recommend seeing it if you get the chance. I would not however recommend taking Tippett’s advice, I can’t imagine watching this film in an altered state.
I would recommend either taking a gummy, smoking some marijuana, drinking a bottle of wine, or bringing a vomit bag to watch it.Phil Tippett writer/director of Mad God