Mad God opens with a firebrand-lit edifice towering into the sky, until its peak is struck by lightning and the whole structure is enveloped in black storm clouds. In case the building’s identity as the Biblical Tower of Babel is missed, this is followed by a portentous quote from the Old Testament (Leviticus 26:27-32) listing the perverse, destructive punishments which God will rain down upon those who disobey and rebel. The rest of the film would appear to be set in the wake of such apocalyptic annihilation, in a decidedly postlapsarian world. Here, an ‘Assassin’ is lowered from the sky past another tower that fires barrages of artillery at his cable-borne diving bell, and heads down down down through the different strata of lost ages and eons below. In his descent, he observes skeletons, ruins and fallen idols – the discarded detritus and sedimentary layers of long-buried pasts – until finally he arrives in a perilous subterranean world, or worlds, where his own mission of destruction, involving a suitcase full of explosives, will be suddenly and violently cut short. Meanwhile a second Assassin, and also a variety of other players (human or otherwise), are pursuing their own goals.
Written and directed by Phil Tippett, who for many decades has been wowing audiences with his stop-motion work and computer-generated animations for the Star Wars and Jurassic Park films (among countless others), Mad God has been a pet project made on and off over 30 years, and finally completed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The animated film is as layered, textured and multi-levelled as the many uncanny environments through which its characters travel on their apparently purposeful, yet inscrutable, underground assignments. For the film’s various catabases are not just geographical journeys into the Earth’s nether regions, but also deep archaeological dives into the darkest quarters of an id-like unconscious, exposing and mining a long atavistic history of human cruelty and depravity. Here the unimaginable is imagined. Holocaust imagery abounds, as slaves of clay are worked to their deaths on the infernal machinery of profoundly unsafe production lines, as abandoned suitcases form mountainous piles, and as doctors perform torturous vivisections on their strapped-in, wide-eyed patients (whose very bodies are also mined and excavated for the treasures hidden within).
Playing like René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) rendered in a grubbily physical 3D, Mad God is an atrocity exhibition, trawling surreally through the very worst dog-eat-dog impulses and urges of our species (while sometimes projecting them onto a bestiary of weird critters and supernatural entities). In its decidedly mean-spirited worldview, Tippett’s film refuses to let us off the hook, and in one confronting sequence even presents a seated audience (just like us) clapping and laughing their way through a shadow play of live torture that is a clear reflex of the very film that we are watching. Tippett is showing us ourselves through a glass darkly, in an anthropological work that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and even includes obsidian monoliths, aligned planets and space babies. Here, however, the (downward) direction of travel is less progressively evolutionary than regressively devolutionary.
If it is hard to discern how all these grotesque set pieces add up, then bewilderment before the bigger picture is also a key theme in Mad God, which is full of characters watching and waiting for enlightenment beyond their grasp (like the captive viewers in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). The Assassin, armed with a torch to light his way through all the darkness, uncomprehendingly observes the different levels and absurd microsocieties through which he treks, with only an ancient crumbling map to guide his path. A giant bound into a seat and force-fed biological waste stares at the tiny passing Assassin with its huge eye. A red-eyed patient observes, in horror, the ravages committed against his own body during a bloody surgery. A disfigured Gnome (played by Chris Morley, voiced by Alexandre Poncet and Talal Selhami) manipulates – like a god – the lives of all creatures great and small for his own sadistic spectatorship, peers into a telescope (which shows both movies and atomic blasts), and helps the mysterious Alchemist (Tom Gibbons) to generate a trippy new micro-cosmos from a miracle birth, starting the whole cycle of construction and destruction again on a smaller scale (even as Tippett too crafts his own universe from miniature models). And a grunting high priest, played by Alex Cox (cult writer/director of Repo Man, 1984) as one of several live-action elements, sets in motion the different Assassins’ missions as mapped out by his three weaving Fates, and is last seen looking down towards the world below for a sign of success, of failure – or of anything. For in Tippett’s nihilistic vision, meaning remains elusive.
Sets, creatures and effigies are handmade and painstakingly animated using traditional physical techniques to craft a forbidding world of tortured souls, endless war and wretched monstrosities, all forged from the primordial horrors of the subconscious mind. Mad God is a labor of love, a testament to the power of creative grit, an homage to the timeless art of stop-motion animation, and a macabre masterpiece. So open your eyes, ready your spirit, and prepare to meet your manic, misanthropic maker, as Tippett takes us on an allegorical plunge into the lowest depths of the human condition.
strap: Phil Tippett maps out, in slow- (and stop-)motion, the Fall of Man as an infernal, archaeological deep dive into our capacity for (self-)destruction
© Anton Bitel