Phil Tippett is a filmmaking legend. His animation work on films like (but certainly not limited to) The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop, and Jurassic Park is iconic. With Mad God, he achieves his experimental masterpiece, a doom-laden world of grotesque beauty that took him more than three decades to finish. There is essentially no dialogue, as a character named The Assassin descends into a hellish landscape and undergoes a disturbing yet dazzling evolution. But the plot is almost incidental: this is a fever dream of a passion project, a collection of nightmarish visuals that impress with their technical achievement and ability to make you shudder in soul-deep disgust.
To say that this world is meticulously crafted is a massive understatement. Every texture, every movement, every shadow is crafted with such skill and devotion that you can’t look away, even for a split second. And if you’re anything like me, you will want to look away, because Mad God is supremely grotesque and unsettling. Watching it feels like sneaking MTV’s Liquid Television after your bedtime: you know you’re not supposed to be watching, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so exciting. It took Phil Tippett over 30 years to make this movie, which is apropos, given that the film feels like a grim artifact you might find filed away next to the Ark of the Covenant, its eldritch power too subversive to be screened for general audiences.
Beasts ooze and sweat and scream. Figures shamble and spurt and screech. Death seems to be everywhere, both calculating and random; if you’re not destroyed by something actively hunting you down, you’ll be destroyed by some sick accident of fate. The phrase “nightmare fuel” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s the perfect description for this stop-motion descent into new circles of hell. Twitchy torture shadow-plays, viscera oozing down walls, the sounds of crying babies coming from unsettling monstrosities…all this and more are scored by pounding off-kilter music that threatens the viewer’s sanity.
This is a world of rust and grime and blood, with a color palette to match, but the range of shades Mad God finds within this hellscape keeps it visually dynamic, as do its crisp lighting and striking camera angles. The cinematography wows throughout — Mad God is a dark and cynical story, but it is also a clear-eyed one; there was never a moment where I didn’t know what I was seeing, though there were times I wish I didn’t. The lighting and camera movements add to the hellish mood without ever obscuring the brilliant work on display, capturing every minute detail of the incredible production design.
One of stop-motion animation’s greatest challenges is making the miniature feel massive, and Tippett is a master of it. There’s an impressive sense of scale and weight to this world — you feel the tonnage of metal pipes and concrete buildings, and the hopeless enormity of this awful place holds you down under polluted skies as you watch enigmatic figures go about Sisyphean tasks. The atmosphere is oppressive and expansive all at once, keeping the viewer in awe of all that can be achieved through the medium of stop-motion, which Tippett proves is the farthest thing from obsolete.
An ingeniously constructed nightmare that I might never be able to watch again, Mad God is a movie that you need to see at least once. It is a stop-motion marvel from the master of the craft; Phil Tippett’s credits on the film include, but are not limited to, writer, director, producer, production designer, co-cinematographer, and additional editor. This is clearly a labor of love that has finally come to fruition after more than 30 years, and Tippett proves once again why he is so revered in the field of stop-motion animation. Mad God is a grotesque, troubling film, but it is also a beautiful, awe-inspiring one, and film fans owe it to themselves to descend into its depths.