Phil Tippett isn’t a household name, but he’s a figure familiar to fans of Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and visual effects as a craft. As a designer, animator, technical innovator, and true film artist, he’s contributed to the childhood dreams and nightmares of generations, as one look through his IMDb credits will confirm. You know his work, even if you don’t know him. Tippett’s magnum opus Mad God – now streaming on Shudder after decades in the works – likely won’t grant him household name status. But it’s a unique and often stunning work that demonstrates that craftspeople like Tippett deserve a chance to explore their ideas outside the confines of other filmmakers’ blockbuster movies.
A mixed-media extravaganza with no dialogue and a bleak and disgusting aesthetic, Mad God one of the more striking works to hit streaming in a while. Steadfastly uncommercial and almost anti-narrative, not to mention jam-packed with potent, nightmarish imagery screaming out (sometimes literally) to be interpreted by the viewer, it makes an interesting counterpart to Takehide Hori’s own solo stop-motion subterranean sci-fi feature Junk Head, sharing a sheer unwavering commitment to its creator’s weird vision. And it’s all blessed with a tactility borne of the physical models and dirty film stock that come with making a 30-year homemade project on a relative shoestring.
Loosely speaking, Mad God follows a figure (“The Assassin”) sent deep underground to destroy a collapsed society, who is subsequently captured, dissected, and the baby inside him ground into the makings of a brand-new universe to collapse. Like the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men, it’s light on conventional plot but heavy on mood, imagery, and metaphor, telling an impassioned story about creation, exploitation, and destruction that might not make any literal statements in its eighty dialogue-free minutes, but clearly comes from a director with a lot to say about the world we inhabit.
Tippett’s elaborate underground hellscape is one defined of extreme violence, pustule-ridden monsters, unnerving sexual imagery, seeping fluids, horrid biomechanical creatures, and lots and lots of lone eyeballs. There’s Giger and Bosch and Beksiński in there, and a host of literary inspirations, but it’s also clearly the work of the man behind Vermithrax Pejorative, the Rancor, and the Millennium Falcon’s holographic chess pieces. Combining a wide range of animation methods with puppetry, love action, and shadow play, this world’s denizens are afforded all the character of Tippett’s work in Star Wars, Robocop, and more, but with no requirement to adhere to, frankly, anyone’s reality but Tippett’s own. That’s not to say that there isn’t a sense of reality here: there’s a disgusting internal logic at play, but its details may be outside our perception.
What is easily perceptible is the feeling imbued into Mad God’s nearly every frame. It presents a pervasive brutality that is no less horrifying for how casually it is deployed. In one of its several pokes at the idea of creation and destruction, an unseen, baby-voiced force creates humanoid creatures out of clay and hair, only to immediately have them forced by horrid, bulbous slave drivers to build some unknown construction, the machinery of which leads to frequent and unsensationalised deaths. This is a world where people – or the closest analogue we get to people – exist only to suffer and serve. It’s unclear whether this is meant to depict Hell or Earth, but it doesn’t matter; the desperation and torture of it all speaks to a vision of the world as a cycle of creation, exploitation, and destruction.
Indeed, as the Leviticus quote that opens the film heralds, Mad God seems to embody an angry deity’s unfiltered, nightmarish disgust at the collective sins of the world – slavery, industry, war, torture – and the cyclic way we seem to keep fucking things up. Even the kaleidoscopic finale, calling to mind 2001 and the most breathtaking section of Noah, sees the creation of a new universe, which enjoys a brief moment of glory only to get turned to shit once again by the life it spawns. Time passes, things decay, everything withers, until time itself is up. Though wordless, it’s an extremely emotional sequence, mournful and angry in equal measure – emotions that resonate through the whole film.
Little wonder Tippett had a mental breakdown during the making of it. A project thirty years in the making, Mad God is the result of numerous on-again, off-again stints production, pushed ahead in the final stretches by a Kickstarter campaign. Passion projects like this can wear on an individual, and when one isn’t afforded support beyond helping hands here and there, it’s an uphill battle getting anything done. Given numerous setbacks, including an existential one in the early ’90s as CGI threatened to make stop-motion extinct, it’s a miracle the film exists as it does today.
What’s unique about Mad God‘s existence is that Tippett is not a director, primarily. He’s a craftsperson, with a CV that boasts an enviable roster of credits on beloved films as an animator, effects artist, or consultant. Prior to Mad God, his sole directorial credit was the direct-to-video Starship Troopers 2, a gig he presumably got through his work on its predecessor. This isn’t a comment on his directing ability; more on the fact that the film industry tends to typecast crew just as much as it does actors. If you’re a craftsperson, you’ll always be a craftsperson.
The only filmmakers “allowed” to jump to directing from another craft, it seems – aside from the odd thrown bone – are actors, likely due to marketability. Sometimes writers manage to make the leap, but it’s rarer. Perhaps there’s something to drawing lines between departments – that’s part of the point of guilds – but it’s unfortunate that filmmakers like Tippett, so indispensible to establishing the look and feel of a generation of films, don’t get the opportunity to author their own visions. Given Tippett’s background, it’s hard not to read Mad God, with its depictions of grinding industry and erasure of individuality, as a response to the Hollywood machine. Indeed, he’s hinted at as much himself.
With Mad God, Phil Tippett has created a film that brings to mind, equally, high-falutin’ art epics like Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, and DIY creature features like Equinox (an early project of fellow FX pioneer Dennis Muren). At 70 years of age, Tippett has moved past making dinosaurs and robots for other filmmakers. If Mad God is any indication, we can only hope we get to see more of what’s been stewing in his subconsciousness. There’s a lot going on in there.