More than 30 years in the making, Phil Tippett’s Mad God is a one-of-a-kind animated epic and a masterpiece of stop-motion. While niche in appeal, for audiences in that niche it will likely be one of the best films of their year.
For science fiction enthusiasts Phil Tippett is a pivotal figure in special effects. His unparalleled stop motion work enhanced the likes of Star Wars (1977), Dragonslayer (1982), Robocop (1987), and Willow (1988). Even once stop-motion fell out of favour he continued to innovate, using those same techniques to improve and advance computer-generated effects in Jurassic Park (1993), Starship Troopers (1997), and the Twilight series (2009-12).
It seems clear that, for all of his effects achievements, Tippett was also keen to direct films himself – indeed in 2004 he helmed the TV film sequel Starship Troopers 2. His first attempt at a directorial feature, however, was the animated film Mad God in 1987. Delayed repeatedly over work commitments, budget shortfalls, and the like, the film has after 33 years finally been completed. It is marvellous. That is actually something of a relief, since you would hate to think Tippett had worked from 1987 to 2020 produced something mediocre.
Presented without dialogue, Mad God sees a masked soldier descend into what seem like the bowels of hell in a bathysphere. At first it seems he is there to explore it, but it soon becomes clear he is instead there to destroy it.
Ultimately the film is low on plot, but overloaded with detail and technique. A grim, hopeless aesthetic dominates. Tippett’s vision of hell is low on fire and brimstone, but overflowing with cruelty, death, and slavery. Intricate techniques bring a host of creatures to life, with each scene presenting another elaborately realised horror. The film follows an episodic narrative, but when the clear draw card is the design and animation an episodic approach is precisely what is required.
Mad God is filled with both war imagery and monsters, and there is an implicit implication it that. There is a great industrial landscape portrayed, in which powerless creature are manufactured rather than born, and then pointlessly slaughtered as part of an endless futile cycle. Still images simply do not do the film justice. It must be seen in full to be fully appreciated. It is not all relentlessly grim, either. Moments of levity abound, but they’re cynical, bleak laughs that Tippett inspires.
It is hardly surprising that one of the world’s great stop-motion animators would direct such an astonishing and atmospheric stop-motion animated film. It is so wonderful to see analogue techniques continue to be applied, even when surrounded by digital enhancements and flourishes. Mad God is artful and inventive. Less a story than an experience, it is dreamlike, surreal, and absolutely striking to watch. While it is overwhelmingly unlikely to find mainstream success, this film has cult success written all over it. Not simply a great film; a landmark.
Mad God enjoyed its North American premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.