Review – Mad God

Overview

Synopsis A nameless assassin descends into a dying world of grotesque monsters and machines with a special mission, witnessing the full depths of the evil of this world as he travels further.

Length 1 hour, 23 minutes

Release Date August 5, 2021 (Locarno Film Festival), June 16, 2022 (Shudder)

 

Rating N/A

Distribution Shudder

Directing Phil Tippett

Writing Phil Tippett

Composition Dan Wool

Phil Tippett is an American stop motion animator and an award-winning visual effects supervisor with an impressive 45-year career in Hollywood. His behind-the-scenes credits cover everything from the original Star Wars trilogy, to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Howard the Duck, Robocop, Willow, Jurassic Park, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Dragonheart, Starship Troopers, Evolution, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and all five Twilight films. He is the kind of filmmaker who normally goes unnoticed in Hollywood, the talented and brilliant but nameless artist that brings the vision of the film to fruition thanklessly.

To date, he has only directed one film: the TV movie Starship Troopers 2. I have never watched it and I have it on good authority that it isn’t good. That said, Tippett is about to become a household name for fans of horror and stop motion animation thanks to his newest film which will be premiering this month on Shudder!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Extreme violence, gore, and body horror. Scenes of military violence—gruesome images. A scene of a woman being stabbed in the distance. Grotesque creatures. Surgery is performed on a man whose chest is torn open and guts are thrown out and examined.
Language/Crude Humor: No dialogue.
Sexual Content: Several of the monsters are depicted with large mammary glands. 
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: Bible quotes, references to godlike beings and the supernatural.
Other Negative Themes: Extreme violence, gore, and content that sensitive viewers will not be able to handle.
Positive Content: Strong themes of anti-war and the desolation of humanity beneath the feet of industry, war, and the machinations of the powerful.

Review

There aren’t very many stop motion animated films that I would call experimental or arthouse, not that is terribly relevant to Mad God. The style is so labor (and time) intensive that it mostly gets used for family movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. It is rare to see a stop motion film, aside from Charlie Kaufman’s Anomolisa, which takes the trappings of the artform and uses them for something more artistically ambitious than a Tim Burton movie. That, as much as any of what I’m about to describe, is why Phil Tippett’s Mad God is so different, unique, and unsettling. It’s not the type of movie most people have ever seen.

The first three scenes of Mad God give us three very powerful images that set the tone for the film that is to follow: an ancient stone tower descended upon by a dark cloud, a small metal pod being lowered into a war zone of artillery, machines, and gas masks, and a title card displaying a quote from the Book of Leviticus.

“If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I myself will lay waste the land so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths.” – Leviticus 26:18 and 26:29-34.

The story for the film to follow is thin, undefined from the get-go, but these opening images tell us a lot about the semiotics of the film, what it’s trying to tell us and how we should interpret it. They evoke the fall of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Judah by Babylon—images of the wrathful God of the Old Testament. They foreshadow an incredibly dark story about unseen evil forces, oppression, violence, and desolation, and our unnamed lead character is evidently about to descend down into a world ruled by such a wrathful god. 

Mad God is an insane movie; a massive undertaking of visual storytelling and a complex setup for a story told without dialogue and mostly through feelings and symbols. It is difficult, not just because it is obtuse but because it is grotesque in its aesthetics: violent, bloody, indulging in the desecration of humanity and visualizing a horrific Lovecraftian world of death and consumption.

And it may be one of the greatest works of stop motion animation ever created.

The story is told in episodic snippets in passing, where our nameless character is seen descending deeper into the belly of an endless abyss of malformed abominations and consumptions, where monstrous creatures and technology exist together to consume the life and energy of other beings, where horror is just the status quo that feeds the creatures living under the surface of this world. It is a deep vision of a world where industry and evil seem to work perpetually for their own sake, a monstrosity that only seems to function for the sake of desecrating life and littering the landscape with skeletons and machinery. 

Much of it can only likely be read as symbolic, such as one scene of a doctor performing surgery on a man and pulling out piles of treasures from a man’s gut as he’s alive on the operating table, a seeming symbol of the relationship between pain and profit. The world seems to be caught in a tension between two unexplained forces: a human survivor and a misformed inhuman alchemist deep within the bowels of the world. Their motives aren’t exactly clear but their actions seem to imply that they’re warring over the fate of this place, whether it should be destroyed or whether it will create the roots for a new world to be born in its ashes.

The film uses a combination of live-action and stop motion to accomplish this story, rendering its environments in animation while its human characters are given human actors, likely a concession to budget or visual fidelity. The mix works well! At times though, the violence is so cartoonishly over the top that it is hard to fully grapple with the horror and pain of it, it doesn’t linger over the images of pain and gore long enough for it to feel excruciating, merely grim and bleak. Certainly, I’m more desensitized though than most of my fellow Christian filmgoers, for whom I recommend caution in approaching this film if only because of its intense ugliness, fascination with desecration, and demonic imagery that it is using to express the idea that war is a bad thing.

Tippett evidently spent thirty years slowly developing this project, starting it shortly after working on Jurassic Park as a kind of swan song to a style of animation he was afraid was going to die in a world of CGI. He eventually gave up on the project before restarting it this decade with help from friends and Kickstarter donations.

The result is a work of independent animation that will likely go down in history as one of the most notable works of original stop motion storytelling ever devised. It is a tremendously bleak film, abstract to the point of being challenging to watch, and lacking a clear catharsis for the meaning it is trying to explore, but undeniably brilliant; a modern spiritual successor to radical abstract anti-war artwork like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It is a work of grotesque love, a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, and a project fans of horror and stop-motion ought to wholeheartedly support!

Positives

+ Incredible stop motion animation
+ Powerful evocative themes
+ Obtuse but dark story

Negatives

- Bleak and violent content not for the faint of heart

The Bottom Line

Mad God is a movie I would not recommend to those who are sensitive, but it is a masterpiece! It is one of the most visually creative and impressive works of stop motion animation ever created.

 

9.2

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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