Phil Tippett’s Phantasmagorical Mad God Is Astounding

Movies Reviews Phil Tippett
Phil Tippett’s Phantasmagorical Mad God Is Astounding

Though it begins by quoting the 26th chapter of Leviticus—“I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate and I will not savor your pleasing odors”—Mad God plays out like the Book of Revelation. Punishment and apocalypse are writ large and brown in feces and industrial run-off. Medical malpractice means more than negligence, it means quacks and ghouls elbow-deep in your guts. All is grist, everything is decay, human bodies little more than rag dolls made of shit. A so-called “She-it,” a screeching, walking tumor of hair and bared teeth, defends her beaked young against the mania of Mad God’s wasteland, wielding a cleaver. (All while I crammed so-called “Cheez-Its” down my gullet, watching and ceaselessly consuming.) Your pleasing odors escape un-savored into the ether. And just when you think you’ve reached the bottom of Hell, convinced there are no more realms of the beyond left to unveil, you see there is always more bottom, always more beyond. You see whole universes of innocent creatures suffering behind heavy vault-like doors, within the memories of one disposable martyr after another, in the spaces yet to be born. In a series of ever-obliterating visions, Mad God reduces the human experience to cosmic chum.

It’s deeply upsetting, and often just as stirring. It would be a pretty clearly nihilistic piece of work, too, were it not such a careful, frequently astounding achievement. A stop-motion film 30 years in the making—beginning with an idea sparked during a lull in shooting Robocop 2Mad God is mostly the work of one man, legendary animator Phil Tippett, every elaborately nauseating set hand-fashioned over the course of decades. “I hated working on Mad God,” he told Inverse, and there’s little evidence to support otherwise. Effort and toil and a crumbling mental state occupy most of Tippett’s recollections of the whole process; one imagines half his life racked with torment over a passion project that’s brought him nothing but pain.

Oh the pain. Mad God chronicles it both in form and function. As Tippett says in that same interview, “If Mad God is about anything, it’s about scale and process…That’s the backbone. It’s much more pictorially and sound-art-oriented than a typical Hollywood theatrical feature.” This is coming from the guy who conjured up the AT-AT attack on Hoth, crafted and animated Tauntauns and the Rancor; the genius inimitable due to his contributions to Robocop, Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers, a soul exposed to both the meanest and most successful exigencies of knuckles-down moviemaking in the past 50 years.

Maybe it’s easy to romanticize a stop-motion animator (who was a consultant on The Force Awakens, but admits he pretty much just cashed checks) in an era that’s long obsolesced any practice but CGI, but Tippett’s brought a whole medium back screaming from a nightmare into the light. Like in the films of Jodie Mack, especially 2019’s The Grand Bizarre, Mad God represents the labor and the time taken to make it, conspicuously tactile with creation. Countless, lonely hours bent over worktables and a posture that would drain anyone’s life expectancy: The film hurts with it.

In turn, the story, so much as Mad God wields one, is a journey of sacrifice. Or, maybe, murder. Descending through alien worlds and vast, wondrous ecosystems—past such ominous symbols as a conch shell engraving, golden spiraling seemingly into the heart of a massive stone face—a diving bell fitted like a makeshift lunar explorer contains a figure clad in bulky trenchcoat, gas mask and helmet: Our Steampunk Jesus (referred to in press materials as the Assassin) on an unknown mission.

Edenic and primal landscapes, the stuff of ancient, better civilizations, give way to something seething underneath, something rotten at the core of everything. The diving bell finally thumps to the ground, surrounded by ruins and piles of stinking, squealing, malformed gunk. The detritus of nightmares. Into this the Assassin goes, consulting a map that crumbles every time it’s consulted and generally trudging through one ur-depravity after another. The Assassin’s goal, apparently, is to reach the tower glimpsed briefly at the very beginning of the film, to take out the titular deity who (we can only guess) rules there, at the heart of hell and the bottom of the Assassin’s map.

So much of Tippett’s imagery and conceits, of course, is Biblical. Beyond the Leviticus quote, the whole shape of Mad God is steeped in Western, Judeo-Christian archetypes, from the messiah character sent to save humanity from itself, to the bifurcated worldview, with Heaven and Hell, the firmament and the infernal cauldron, split into separate governorships. But rather than draw strength from these familiar stories and popular myths, Tippett perverts them, cuts them down with videogame logic. There’s no sympathy in Mad God, no main character, no real satisfying end to the Assassin’s journey. All your loved ones are not waiting for you at the End of Physical Pain. These two hands and the years spent using them to give life to your finest dreams as beautifully as your worst nightmares—that’s all you have.

As the Assassin walks deeper into the Mad God’s territory, witnessing what one can only assume is Tippett’s most debased metaphor for capitalism—giant prisoners electrocuted forever, dying forever and shitting cascades into the robot mouths of android heads with belligerent eyes, all that waste recycled into vaguely human workers, disposable shit dolls at the shit doll factory—steampunk becomes cyberpunk becomes the colorless, biological blight of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. The Assassin sneaks through the shit doll factory, part massive slaughterhouse for giant grubs and genetically mangled manatee-cattle (just the most repulsively sad creature in the film…until the next one), and part death factory for the shit dolls, where worker accidents are encouraged and mortality rates hover around 100%. Infant gibberish comes out of loudspeakers while foremen with giant pustule-ridden balls (honestly their bodies are pretty much all balls) diarrhea constantly on their assistants, occasionally whipping the shit dolls—the factory workers, remember, who are made out of the voluminous shit of giant executed prisoners—to keep them in line.

All of this, and then the Assassin is caught by the Powers That Be, stripped of all that gear and eviscerated by a “doctor” and “nurse.” From beneath way too many organs and guts, the doctor pulls a screeching worm baby out of the Assassin’s body, the worm’s teeth of course unnervingly human—everything in this film either squealing, screaming or screeching—and hands the worm to the nurse, who then carries the baby to its fate. Meanwhile, the doctor scopes the dying Assassin’s brain (literally drilling into the skull and sticking a fat fiber optic scope inside) to dip into the Assassin’s genetic memories. The doctor watches as a taloned priest (beloved writer-director Alex Cox, who looks like no other human on this planet) dresses in ceremonial robes, receives a map sewn of skin from three Macbeth-ian witches, and takes it to the diving bell, where another Assassin waits for it, on the verge of descending into Hell. An army of Assassins, identically dressed, line up around the diving bell’s platform. This has happened before, the same skin map used again and again, falling apart more and more on each descent.

Tippett purges his Id until he’s wrung the last bit of bile from the Assassin’s journey, but even throughout all the harrowing imagery, the director never loses a sense of cinematic wonder. Given the film’s medium, it’s nothing short of a miracle that his camera (with help from co-cinematographer Chris Morley) can so gracefully move through an industrial hellscape, encouraging discovery in the viewer even when anyone’s reflex would be to close their eyes. It helps that Tippett’s designs shift between the kind of dirty-broken babydolls or haunted toy creatures you could find in the post-apocalyptic stop-motion films of the Quay Brothers, and the unbridled, asymmetrical mélange of Cronenbergian new flesh. As Mad God crawls in and out of comprehensible and incomprehensible visions, Tippett bends time on itself. Maybe apocalypse is a new beginning? A new chance to make things over? Wouldn’t we be so lucky.

In Mad God, life seems meaningless. Stories don’t end when protagonists die because there are only antagonists running reality. And yet, as punishing as the film can get, it’s also clearly, fully realized, as pure a translation of a remarkable man’s bodily prowess—action, reaction, sinew and muscle and bone in tandem, the heartrending inertia of all things moving toward obliteration and the patience to let that happen—as we’re privileged enough to get from someone who’s already given us so much of himself. For all the grossness, all the bodily fluids and misery and Dan Wool’s charmingly contratonal music, for all the cynicism about the nature of the human race, Mad God is ultimately hopeful. It’s an absolution, for Tippett and maybe for us too. Nothing that’s taken 30 years, and so much health and sanity, could be anything but.

Director: Phil Tippett
Writer: Phil Tippett
Starring: Alex Cox, Niketa Roman, Satish Ratakonda
Release Date: June 15, 2022 (Shudder)

Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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