Fantasia 2021: Mad God
While Phil Tippett may be best known for his stop-motion and creature effects on the original Star Wars trilogy, his first feature film is not something you’re likely to see spawn a merchandising empire or an inter-generational franchise. Mad God is a dark, dirty, experimental, transgressive and deeply uncommercial film, a raw, expressionist cry of outrage and despair. Tippett’s mastery of visual effects is on full display, making his bleak vision beautiful in its profanity and technically breathtaking even while it tests the limits of your squeamishness. Because make no mistake, this is not a film for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It’s also not a film for those who demand an in-depth narrative or characterizations. That isn’t a failing on the movie, but rather a point where the intent of the film and the tastes of the audience may not meet up. But for those with the constitution for the film’s visuals and the patience and perception for its storytelling will find something quite special in Mad God, a work of singular vision and incredible talent that is, cliche as it may sound, unlike anything you have seen before.
To call Mad God “non-narrative” wouldn’t quite be right, but it would be close. The audience follows “The Assassin”, a hulking figure who emerges from a diving bell into a hellish subterranean world on a mission to deliver a mysterious briefcase. He never speaks, and indeed the film has no real dialogue. As this ambiguous figure treks through the world of the film, we’re essentially taken on a walking tour of the depraved, soul-churning landscape of Tippett’s vision. It’s not a fun place, to put it mildly. Massive, churning machines belch smoke and fire. Lumpy, misshapen abominations of flesh and rusty metal grunt, scream, excrete and die. Massive tanks battle on barren battlefields, crushing bystanders and exploding into balls of fire as they fight on in the name of who-knows-what. It’s an ugly world, full of profanity and pain and cruelty.
To what end, though? In the tradition of the expressionists or punk rock, Mad God isn’t so much about communicating ideas or commentary as it is emotions. There’s plenty to be read into the film’s imagery about exploitation, cruelty, industry. But this isn’t a coherent piece of nuanced assessment or rhetoric. This is a cry of anger, of anguish and frustration at the ugliness and injustice of the world, and a peek into the darkest recesses of a mind that has grappled with depression. There is a narrative, albeit one that is told non-verbally and in fragments, occasionally looping back on itself and going on tangents. But that thread that pulls us through the world of Mad God isn’t the main feature here. It isn’t about the story, it’s about the world, the visuals, the atmosphere and the emotions behind it all. Don’t fall into the trap of expecting anything as pat as character arcs, a three-act structure, or any of the narrative trappings you’ve come to expect. This isn’t that kind of film, and in many ways is better for it.
In addition to Tippett’s emotional turmoil and ideological outrage, his years of experience working in special effects is also fully on display in Mad God. While stop-motion definitely takes the spotlight, the film also makes extensive use of more conventional techniques, with live actors (including an appearance by auteur director Alex Cox) occasionally appearing to seamlessly integrate into the landscape of the film thanks to impeccable sets and costuming. Technically, the film is a marvel, the models are impeccably detailed and realized, animated, and presented with incredible flair.
It must be noted though, that the film’s technical mastery is bent towards realizing a vision that will challenge the squeamish. Mad God is a deeply unsettling spectacle to behold, practically painted with gore, viscera, bodily fluids and a near limitless supply of gross distortions of the flesh. A brief shot of what could only be real footage of an unsimulated sex act can briefly be glimpsed, and if you miss it there’s plenty else to see that verges on the pornographic, although this is as far from erotic as one could ever possibly get. It’s beautiful in this depravity, the effects once again masterful and the presentation continually striking in its choices of composition. It presents the hideous and haunting with a true flair, captivating you at the same time that it repulses you.
Thematically and visually, Mad God is challenging. It confronts the viewer with appalling ugliness, less in the name of exploration or commentary than raw expression. This is one of those pieces of art that was made in part because the artist -needed- to make it, to put to canvas some inner torment or trauma lest it eats them alive from within. It’s a bare, ugly, raw expression, brought to life by someone with uttery mastery of their craft. See it for the spectacle of it, for the sheer magnitude of the gruesome tableau. See it for the story behind it, to see what the culmination of decades of work looks like. See it for the experience of watching someone bear what is doubtlessly a very dark part of themselves for all the world to see. See it because you love the gross stuff. See it because you know that sometimes it’s healthy to see something very upsetting. Whatever the reason, just see it. There’s nothing else like it.