‘Mad God’: Film Review | Oldenburg 2021

Special-effects pioneer Phil Tippett delivers a stop-motion labor of love he began back in the ’80s.

A stop-motion feature made during off-hours by one of the field’s giants, Phil Tippett’s Mad God takes us into the mind of the man behind RoboCop’s autonomous killers and the hulking AT-ATs Luke fought in The Empire Strikes Back. As it happens, that mind has some dark corners, and the world envisioned here ranks among the bleakest dystopias science fiction has given us. The dialogue-free feature, in which live-action performers play only very brief roles, leaves a great deal to the viewer’s imagination and is intended to function more like a dream than a literal story. It’s a nightmare, and not one a mainstream audience would relish. But aficionados of this nearly extinct form of special effects will relish the chance to see a labor of love whose roots go back to circa 1987.

That was when, during a lull in work on RoboCop 2, Tippett designed some characters for this project and shot a few scenes. Then Jurassic Park happened, and the things he was able to achieve there with CGI made purely model-based stop-motion look obsolete. Mad God gathered dust in the back of a Berkeley studio for decades, until Tippett’s acolytes convinced him to restart the project, and to teach them his methods as he went. Add a Kickstarter campaign and some COVID-generated free time, and the feature is now a reality.

Mad God

The Bottom Line

A despairing vision, but a tech achievement FX geeks will need to see.

Venue: Oldenburg Film Festival (Midnite Xpress)

Director-screenwriter: Phil Tippett

1 hour 23 minutes

We enter this world along with another who doesn’t belong: A steampunky-looking guy the credits call an Assassin descends through layers of murky atmosphere in a coffin-size transport device. Scenes of war, slavery and ruin surround him on the world’s surface; though the rubble contains references to Ray Harryhausen, ’50s sci-fi and maybe even the forsaken dolls of the Quay Brothers, this is an environment built on subconscious horrors and the psychotic threats of an Old Testament God, not the work of Tippett’s genre forebears.

Scale is unpredictable here, with the Assassin sometimes seeming huge and sometimes tiny — as when he passes four gigantic figures who seem trapped in a constant state of electrocution and evacuating their bowels. When they eat remains a mystery, but their splattering waterfalls of excrement seem to be the raw material for faceless creatures called, well, Shit Men.

Those men are as doomed as their name suggests, boiling your worst suspicions about life’s pointlessness down into blunt illustrations: Some appear to walk straight from their place of creation over to a furnace where they’re incinerated; others toil on construction projects designed to fall and crush them. Others die randomly, and nobody bats an eye. Feces, vomit and guts surround us, and we haven’t even gotten to the autopsy theater.

There, a cartoonishly gory disembowelment of a live victim produces something that’s regarded as a treasure: a squealing baby monster that doctors quickly hand off to a mysterious, black-clad figure who mutters in Italian. What happens from there, hard as it is to interpret, seems to represent the core of the movie’s mythology, one involving constant rebirth and destruction. Is the Mad God the creature in black? Or an unseen force who created him? Or the live-action observer (played with grunts and wordless murmurs by Alex Cox) sending one Assassin after another to invade this strange world?

Whatever the answer, Tippett does offer some things fans may want along with all those bodily fluids. Two giant monkeys fight, for instance, when they’re not being electrocuted or shoveling mountains of excrement. Machines of war rampage, although their design resonates more with World War I than with the modern weapons Tippett animated for Hollywood. And however depressing they may be, the elaborately designed worlds the camera glides through do create a credible hermetic reality unto themselves. Just pray you never get stuck there.

Full credits

Venue: Oldenburg Film Festival (Midnite Xpress)
Production company: Tippett Studio
Director-screenwriter-producer: Phil Tippett
Executive producers: David Berry, Jules Roman, Sanjay Das, Colin Geddes, Katarina Gligorijevic, Josh Sobel, Gary Mundell
Director of photography: Chris "CMO" Morley
Editor: Ken Rogerson
Composer: Dan Wool

1 hour 23 minutes