MAD GOD is a veteran artist’s magnum opus, and also a miserable film

Ok… Hello kings and kweens. Today we’re going to talk about a strange movie… Mad God. Mad God is a mostly stop-animation film created by Phil Tippett. Can’t say I was a huge fan of this movie. I know this movie is of interest to a lot of people out there, so I thought I’d do a quick review.

I want to talk about two things with this movie. I want to talk about the artistry of this film and I want to talk about its narrative or lack thereof.

Background

This movie is directed, written, and generally made by Phil Tippett. Tippett is a 50-year veteran of the moviemaking business who specializes in visual effects. He started by doing stop animation for films like Star Wars and went on to do effects for movies including Temple of Doom, RoboCop and the Twilight franchise. Tippett specializes in stop-motion animation and was quite successful throughout the 80s given his collaborations with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Verhoeven. This was up until he began production on Jurassic Park where he discovered he had been replaced as the effects artist for the dinosaurs by another special effects company specializing in computer generated imagery or what we now know as CGI. Tippett was distraught by the news and famously proclaimed to Spielberg he had “become extinct.”

Around the same time, Tippett began his work on a passion project called Mad God. This movie uses a lot of different art styles – including some live action – but it is mostly stop animation like you’ve never seen before. Stop animation is Tippett’s specialty. It’s how he got started. He’s been doing it for decades, and this movie has been on his mind for a long time. This movie has been in production for over 30 years. It finally came together thanks to a Kickstarter project that raised roughly $120,000. But even that funding was from 2012. This movie has lulled in some variant of development hell for the past decade but now it is finally out.

I would usually give you the premise of this movie, but I’m going to talk about that later for reasons that will become obvious.

Artistry

If you have any doubt Tippett deserves his accolades as one of the most technically proficient artists in filmmaking history, you need only watch five minutes of Mad God to be reassured. This movie is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Not only because stop-motion has become a bit of a rarity in modern filmmaking, and not only because stop-motion is almost never adult-themed like this movie is, but simply because the level of detail in this movie is otherworldly.

It is the style of the animation and the visual design of the setting that immerses you in the film’s unique and inspired world that is truly novel. The broad strokes of the narrative is following a character descend into the depths of this haunted world. It is a setting that earns the definition of “hellscape.” I’ve used that phrase to describe other things — often ironically — but Mad God’s setting is really the most deranged and horrifying place I have ever seen. Before I saw this movie, I had a vague conception of hell based on things like Dante’s Inferno or God of War, and other stories. I had this vision of red-shaded demons walking around with chains and fire or whatever. I have now updated my conception of what hell is to this movie.

The imagery of Mad God is something I will never forget. I know because I ended up watching this movie in two parts — not a slight on the movie, I was just tired the first time. And I knew the movie had made an impact because over that three-day intermission I constantly thought about the horrifying visuals that were scared into my brain from the first half of this movie. I’ll give two examples to illustrate what I mean.

Early in the movie, the main character is walking along and sees a legless guy who looks like a mummy. This mummy man is crawling around and he has the misfortune of running into a grotesque being I can’t even being to describe. The teeth of this creature are the most notable physical feature, but it’s one of those designs where the longer you look the worse it gets. This creature inexplicitly takes the mummy man aside and chops him to bits. This is the first impression you get of the world. It’s gross, ugly, and needlessly violent and cruel. This world continually earns that definition the more time you spend in it.

Second example — not long after that other encounter, the main character is in this room where he sees these gargantuan men strapped into these chairs. These large men are in a constant state of electrocution. You can see bolts of lightning whizzing away into their cranium at a ceaseless rate. As the character progress into the room, you can see the chairs for these men have the bottoms cut out so they can evacuate their bodily fluids without disrupting their tortuous electrocution. These fluids flow constantly into a pit below. It’s just a stream of piss, blood, and shit flying out the backside of all of these guys. The main character descends further into the world and you discover the fluids of those men are being fed into a monster that looks like the one I mentioned before that attacked the mummy man.

Maybe the description I just gave doesn’t sound that bad. You can certainly find more violent content in other movies or even on the internet. But it is the combination of the visuals and the mood that’s established in this movie that seared these moments into my brain. The world of Mad God is one full of senseless misery, torture, and suffering in every frame. All the creature designs are grotesque and horrifying. Not only that but they seem to be survive off of the suffering of others, as made clear by that second example I just gave. Everything about this setting is grim and terrifying. Oddly enough, there was never a moment where I thought “I feel disturbed right now.” I passively gazed into this world and allowed its visuals to traumatize me without resistance. It is the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in a while.

I should say, I view this lasting emotion I have for this film as an accomplishment for its creators. Making nightmarish visuals in a way that isn’t edgy and cringe is difficult to do but they nailed it. This movie doesn’t feel like it was made by a depressed teenager who listens to metal music. It is more creative and inspired than that cliché. The problem is this is the type of accomplishment that works against you. The movie is so effective at establishing its hellscape and it is so perfectly disturbed, that I didn’t like watching it. I can commend its technical artistry, but I hated looking at it. Some of that might be due to the film’s lacking narrative.

Narrative

There simply is no narrative in this movie. If you get any enjoyment from Mad God it’s marveling at its artistry, because not only can the plot be summarized in a few sentences but it really doesn’t make any sense.

There is a man who is sent to this hellscape. He attempts to plant a bomb but he gets captured. He is tortured for some amount of time and the surgeons working on him take out this baby that apparently exists inside him. The baby is brought to some mysterious chemist who does… something to the baby… and then… something trippy happens. Then the credits roll. That is the entire movie. It is a short movie at 80 minutes, but most of it is not following the plot instead it spends its time looking at the horror show happening on the sidelines.

The critical conversations around this movie suggest it is a deeply metaphorical film. If people examining this movie are to be believed, then you can substitute every element of Mad God and replace it for a metaphor for something else. For example, the Wikipedia page for this movie suggests the scene where the man has his insides removed — where the audience discovers he’s filled with jewelry and other random objects — this is meant to be a metaphor for the man holding onto secrets for warfare. Which… sure man, whatever. I don’t see how that metaphor makes any sense. I don’t know why you’d think this movie is actually about warfare secrets. I don’t see why you’d think this movie is about anything, but that’s just me. There is nothing in the movie to aid you in understanding it. If you like these metaphorical discussions, that’s fine, but I don’t believe in bringing things from outside the movie into an analysis of it. I found the plot of this movie to be incomprehensible. There’s really nothing there unless you bring something to it.

Closing Thoughts

When you combine the miserable viewing experience of this movie along with its lack of value in any narrative capacity, I think you might understand why I didn’t like it.

I’d give this movie a 2 out of 5. I didn’t like watching it and I didn’t get anything out of watching it — other than nightmares. On some artistic conceptual level, I can give it credit. It is absolutely a career-defining magnum opus. And I think this movie would be great to leave on mute in the background of a party during Halloween or something. It is impressive it reinvented my sense of what the worst place in existence might look like, but that’s not an accomplishment that would lead me to recommend this film to anyone else.

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