Written, directed and produced (among many other credits) by Phil Tippett, the founder and namesake of Tippett Studio, whose varied career in visual effects has spanned more than thirty years and includes two Academy Award wins and six nominations. Mad God, released in 2021, is a rich visual treat for enthusiasts of horror and stop-motion animation alike, serving as a harrowing delve into a post-apocalyptic hellscape that is both unique and disturbing. Harbouring a cinematic allure that is equal parts unsettling and mesmerising, Mad God proves that even in the age of CGI, the art form of stop-motion remains strong, even if the story and characters it’s bringing to life are far from well-developed.
Plot Summary: Equipped with a gas mask and an ageing map, the Assassin, a lone iron-clad humanoid, descends into an underworld of tortured souls, ruined cities and wretched monstrosities on a covert mission to reach the heart of this nightmarish realm of suffering…
First starting work on the project in the late 1980s, shortly after creating effects for RoboCop 2, released in 1990. Mad God has been Tippett’s pet project for over thirty years, despite the filmmaker almost considering abandoning the project when Jurassic Park was released in 1993, as CG effects appeared to make stop-motion a thing of the past. After some urging from those around him, however, Tippett decided to create a Kickstarter campaign that allowed him to complete the project. In the following years, three parts of Mad God were released online, which made up around half of the full eighty-two-minute version that was eventually screened at various film festivals. And whilst this story behind the film’s creation is certainly intriguing, Mad God‘s biggest shortcoming is that it lacks a narrative itself, or at least a coherent one. Instead, the film relies on visual storytelling and world-building as the audience follows the Assassin on his lengthy journey, encountering many distinct creatures, locations and civilisations on a mission that is never disclosed. As such, watching Mad God requires a lot of concentration to get the most out of it, much like how the project was crafted, I suppose.
With no dialogue or characterisation to speak of, Mad God‘s characters hinge entirely on their design. Thankfully, every character/creature that appears throughout the runtime is visibly repulsive, unnerving and eccentric. At the core of Mad God‘s story is a character only known as the Assassin, a silent, gas mask-wearing humanoid who also receives no characterisation, instead functioning as an audience surrogate through Tippett’s fever dream of a post-apocalyptic world. As the film features no dialogue, the central cast, including Alex Cox, Niketa Roman and Satish Ratakonda, only appear in a handful of live-action sequences, which similar to the scenes of stop-motion, are grimy and discomforting whilst relying on visuals over direct storytelling. While these sequences are interesting and count towards what little plot there is, many of these moments also pull you out of the experience and are often plagued by the film’s need to implement oral sounds to ensure the human characters don’t appear mute, meaning noises like “Eh?” and “Hmmm” become rather repetitious.
The cinematography by Chris Morley and Phil Tippett allows for spectacular framing within every scene, lending to the atmosphere and intrigue of each setting, whether its an oxidised factory of greasy machinery or a society of helpless slaves ruled over by an electronic screen that speaks in child-like gibberish. Furthermore, each of the surroundings the Assassin treks across is distinguished by the film’s colour palette, which seamlessly jumps from cold blues to vile greens and blood reds, making the stop-motion appear incredibly cinematic. Interestingly, one scene, which features a mountain of dead soldiers, was actually accomplished by melting thousands of plastic army men together on a wire. This scene took six animators around three years to complete, demonstrating the substantial amount of dedication required to animate even a single scene of Mad God.
Through prolonged tracks like Long Way Down and Conveyance, Mad God‘s original score by Dan Wool enhances many of the surreal visuals in a relatively nuanced fashion, making for a soundtrack that isn’t all that memorable, but avoids becoming overbearing as to let the visuals speak for themselves. However, the sound design is where the film’s audio truly shines as the countless animalistic growls of the mutated creatures that roam Mad God‘s mystifying world are ghastly and add audible depth to whichever location the Assassin finds himself.
As most would expect from Tippett Studio, the animation itself is smooth yet appropriately unearthly, providing every creature with its own jittery method of walking/crawling that feels remarkably natural. What’s even more impressive is that, according to Tippett, a considerable amount of the animation on Mad God was actually conducted by novice students who wanted to gain some filmmaking experience.
In summary, Mad God will likely be a very divisive film on account of its largely interpretive narrative and absence of well-defined characters. But, these annoyances ultimately don’t matter that much in the grand scheme, as Mad God thrives in what it’s trying to do. Presenting itself as a love letter to stop-motion that could only be realised by a legendary visual effects artist like Phil Tippett. And with stop-motion animation in such short supply nowadays, an outstanding piece of artsy like Mad God will always be a joy to behold, faults or not. Rating: high 7/10.