Mad God (2021), Phil Tippett [3.5/5]
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Mad God follows a gas-masked protagonist as he descends into a psychotic nightmare in search of an object on his map. It's hard to describe the visceral, disturbing horrors of Phil Tippett's world without seeing his outlandish stop-motion models and set pieces. It's Tim Burton in a k-hole at a factory farm. It's the industrial carnage of Okja (2017) set to the tune of Fallout: New Vegas' post-apocalyptic nihilism without the ironic detachment. In other words, it's exceedingly dark.
The first thing apparent from the film is that Phil Tippett is a master of visual effects. In the 80s, Tippett implemented the "go motion" technique to bring to life the tauntauns of Hoth and the Imperial AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), before leading the creature shop for Return of the Jedi (1983). Go motion, by the way, is a type of stop-motion animation which uses motion blur to achieve more realistic movement in animatronics and VFX models. Then in 1987, Tippett built and animated the ED-209 corporate drone for the climactic shootout in RoboCop before Spielberg brought him on as the dinosaur supervisor for Jurassic Park (1993).
In Mad God, Tippett distills the technical skills of an iconic career into a horrific concoction, bringing to life a never-ending stream of wasteland sets and creature models that rival the most detailed worldbuilding of fantasy novels and sandbox games. The symbolism of the reflected evil from our world isn't exactly subtle. A tyrant rules over a demonic production line where human-like wisps of yarn are created and worked to death, overseen by a bovine master before their mass slaughter. Smokestacks, assembly lines, industrial farming, surveillance states, mass open-air prisons, they all play a part in Mad God like headlines of an Economist article.
The closest film I could compare it to aesthetically is Shane Acker's 9 (2009) about a community of autonomous sock puppets in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where machines have replaced humans after a nuclear war. Tonally, the film reminded me of The Dark Crystal (1982) with its disturbing mysticism and reptilian Skeksis puppets. Yet like Inferno's nine circles of Hell, Mad God's world is much more vast, perverse, and nightmarish than those films. Importantly, we meet the world without a backstory or line of dialogue.
This is my main critique of the movie. Aside from a closing sequence that hints at the creation of a new universe and its predetermined self-destruction, Mad God avoids grand narratives. It comes across as a senseless hellscape of trauma porn where creatures like wailing eels with human teeth and humanoid ogres with cleavers scurry for survival before being churned up by the machine. Defenders of Mad God will point out the film's environmental storytelling where we see glimmers of our world (atomic mushroom clouds, the ruins of a city that could be New York or Boston, and the wrecks of cars) that could be taken as evidence of an apocalyptic warning. "If humans continue their unfettered pursuit of industry and violence, we will lose everything, we will create Hell on earth" the film might want to say.
Yet with an anonymous, voiceless protagonist who never completes his goal (the inciting incident launches a hero's journey of following the map to an object but goes nowhere) and an ending which only confirms the destructive apathy of the story without a twist or message, the film shines as a technical triumph but fails to establish a sense of meaning. Why were we brought along this journey? What did we learn or take away? That meaning, to me, is integral to storytelling. 3.5/5, still worth a watch for the bizarrely brilliant stop-motion animation and worldbuilding, but toothless in its narrative.