Dir. Phil Tippett
Reviewed by Nicholas Goldwin
Technically astonishing and immersive to a fault, director Phil Tippett successfully demonstrates that thirty years of relentless dedication to your craft can lead to cinematic innovations even his old stomping grounds – the sets of Star Wars and Jurassic Park – have yet to catch up. Not to disparage either of those staples of cinema, but neither Tyrannosaurs nor Tatooine have anything on Tippett.
The aptly titled Mad God can only be pointing to such a mind as endlessly imaginative as Tippett’s, whose film can only be described as a playground of the damned and demented, where imagery of war, nuclear fallout, slave labour, torture, espionage, Orwellian dystopia and Cronenberg-esque body horror seemingly compete and collaborate with one another to find out what exactly will wind up pushing the world into the inevitable oblivion it seems to be hurtling towards.
A dialogue-free dive into a techno-organic apocalypse like nothing committed to film before, Tippett’s visionary nightmare is that of a world forced to rip itself apart and start again from scratch, this the result of its endless capacity for pain and self-destruction, which for the audience amounts to a phantasmagorical sensory assault inflicted for the entirety of its runtime. To that end, Mad God is less a gripping story being told, at least after its initial exposition, and more of an atmospheric malaise for the audience to sink themselves into, a plunge into depravities so bizarrely fascinating that they would make HP Lovecraft himself fearful, then envious for not conceiving of it of his own.
That being said, a nightmare for a face does not a movie make, which is just as well given the non-existence of a plot (the coherence of which is baffling to keep up with on a first watch). As far a narrative is concerned, Mad God is a tale of a lone Assassin tasked with detonating an explosive in a strategically-determined location, presumably to provide a victory of some kind to his allies. This inciting endeavour serves as a thematic crux for the rest of the movie: the infinite stupidity of life deciding to persist despite having every reason not to. In a world where all that matters is the harm one can bring to others, Tippett illustrates how pain is a currency through which purpose can be bought, and in doing provide for seemingly sole means, if not reason, to carry on living no matter how brutal that life may end up being.
In this sense, an argument could be made that Tippett is justifying humanity’s own tendencies for self-destruction as but the singular, if not single-minded path for so-called progress. If such were his thesis, he opens up a philosophical can of worms regarding the depiction of war and pain in film – a point most notably posed by François Truffaut in the 1960s when he stated that “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” The moral and ethical ramifications of such a perspective are epitomised toward film’s end, when an Alchemist seemingly breathes life into a new cosmos from the puréed remains of an infant that was extracted from the Assassin’s dismembered corpse. Life and death are always going to be two sides of the same coin, no matter how malformed and grotesque that coin may turn out to be over time.
As I alluded to previously, it would not be entirely inaccurate to say the plot loses sight of itself amid the literal hailstorm of a relentlessly unhinged imagination. After a while, the kaleidoscopic cascade of nightmares seemingly begin to pile on top of each other in a race to produce the subsequent montage of bizarre instalments, including the disquieting surrealism of insects playing a game of cards — it was actually quite jarring to see that scene so late into the runtime, like taking in one of Calvin Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Polka paintings in between enjoying the work of Zdzisław Beksiński. Nevertheless, the sheer wall-to-wall insanity on display could well be Tippett’s way of reminding his audience that as much as a purpose is worth seeking, the associated nooks and crannies that we all inevitably encounter along the road to self-fulfilment are ultimately the real function of any personal journey, a well-worn cliché of any narrative that Tippett successfully forces us to reconsider through the lens of literal cosmic rebirth.
As unprecedented in its scope and effects it may be, as well as the endlessly morbid implications of human nature this film offers, the entire time I was watching it I couldn’t help but be reminded of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the 2012 opus of a similarly-hailed maverick of animation, Don Hertzfeld. Both films concern existential questions of life and death in their own (somehow) similarly surreal ways, yet both are hailed to be entirely unique entities unto themselves (Herzfeld’s style of animation entails hand-drawn stick men that spurt out into Dadaist expressions of emotion, wit and philosophy, while Tippett’s is exclusively visual storytelling that entrusts the audience with the ability to infer deeper meaning from the effects and production design). Tangential as it may be to note this, but I find it fascinating that both films that are surprisingly similar on the macro level (in terms of ground-breaking surrealist animation), and how the cycle of innovation carries equally on as much in film as it does in life.
In the end, it’s difficult to draw a definitive conclusion in terms of what Tippett is trying to say in Mad God, and this becomes all-the-more puzzling by how philosophically charged its atmosphere is. The cycle of creation, destruction and reinvention is perhaps the most important takeaway here, and it is one wholly reflected in the film as the product of a decades-long process to prove to the world that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially when it comes to animation. To that end, Mad God utilises stop-motion techniques that have been around for decades, which have merely been facilitated by modern advancements but never outright replaced. If that doesn’t scream to you “my way or the highway,” I don’t know what else to say.
New to the trade, though not to Cinema, Nicholas Goldwin is currently Riot Material’s London-based Film Critic.