I’m just gonna say it: with all due respect to Denis Villeneuve or Chloe Zhao – any visual effects award, distinction, or accolade this year that goes to Dune, a Marvel movie, or anything but Mad God, special effects master Phil Tippett’s 30-year magnum opus, needs to go right back into the toilet. I can say with some confidence that there won’t be another movie in 2021 or, perhaps, ever again that puts on display the master craftsmanship, care, and love of a true visual effects legend like Tippett has in Mad God. Every meticulously constructed, dialogue-free frame is so densely packed with detail that it’s almost exhausting. Tippett’s created a world here that, even without the benefit of dialogue, feels fleshed out, horrendously real, and all-the-way unsettling.
Tippett should barely require any introduction, and I can all but promise that you’ve already seen his pioneering effects work, both in the realms of stop-motion animation and digital effects. From Star Wars to Jurassic Park to Robocop to Starship Troopers to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and a laundry list of other credits, Tippett’s hands have very likely been in one or more of your favourite films, if not all of them. Mad God is the crowning achievement of a prolific career in which Tippett won his first Oscar in 1985 and hasn’t slowed down since.
Less a singular, cohesive story than a series of segments, Mad God follows an unnamed explorer, clad in a trenchcoat and goggles, who descends into a hellish world of deranged creatures that would feel at home in the sort of Tim Burton movie that is definitely not for kids. As they traverse the landscape, they encounter all manner of visual horrors – creatures that are just going about their cruel and degraded business, like a Minotaur being sexually gratified or a demoralized child’s doll seeking companionship, or perhaps more. The explorer – called ‘Assassin’ in the film’s description but never identified as either hero or villain – descends beneath the strata of the landscape and past ruined cityscapes, the wrecked skulls of titans, broken (in more ways than one) dolls, and misfit toys that all have their own horrible stories. Even Tippett’s own creations lie here in the wastes. Keen-eyed viewers will see the wreckage of Robocop‘s ED-209, and other Hollywood icons among the detritus.
The first thing that’ll pop into your mind as you let Mad God wash over you is, perhaps, Dante’s Inferno – a seemingly endless spiral of gorgeous misery. There are scenes in Mad God that remind me of the arcane and often grotesque rituals in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster or Drawing Restraint films, and are equally opaque to me in terms of their meaning. Tippett has also cited famously analysis-resistant artist Hieronymus Bosch as an influence on Mad God. But unpacking subtext isn’t really the game here, I don’t think. Mad God is a visual experience that is so sumptuous that trying to find deeper meaning – subtext or, heck, even text – would feel superfluous. It’s clear that Tippett’s singular vision is unmolested by studio heads or focus groups. The other, more unfortunate side of that coin is that it’s unlikely that a dialogue-free, ultraviolent stop-motion film will ever be a candidate for a wide theatre release, even though a movie of this visual quality really should be experienced on the largest possible screen. As much as Tippett does everything possible to bring a viewer into tactile world he’s created and so clearly breathed life into, I found myself missing the immersion of a theatre for one of the first times this year.
I won’t tell you how you should or shouldn’t watch Mad God, because I feel it’s an intensely personal movie to absorb. There’s so much left unexplained that it invites – perhaps demands – you to fill in the blanks with your imagination. I will say, though, that I experienced the film more like a symphony than a traditional movie. It seems to have episodic ‘movements’ – at least three fairly distinct ones that I could identify – and the visuals are more like music than anything else. The scenes, lit low, barely linger long enough for you to register them before they move to something else. It might be minutes later, or even long after the credits roll, that you can even think about what you’ve just seen.
Mad God is a project that never allows you as a viewer to take it for granted, because you can’t help but see the love and care that has gone into crafting every tiny detail – even ones that may only be onscreen for a split second. Every gaudy, gory moment in Phil Tippett’s Mad God is thoughtfully designed and shot, with a precision and imagination that only Psycho Goreman has touched for me this year. And even though the story leaves everything to your imagination, you’ll be left wondering if, perhaps, the Mad God here is Tippett himself.