Fantastic Fest Review: Phil Tippett’s ‘Mad God’
After being presented with the text of an ancient scroll followed by establishing shots depicting the hellish landscape surrounding a sinister spire that looms over a monster-infested dystopian wasteland, it’s quite clear Phil Tippett’s epic stop-motion adventure Mad God is going to be an incredible sight to behold, a sentiment that remains true right up until the credits roll. This bizarre story begins with a nameless soldier carrying a briefcase of explosives as they descend into the lair of an unseen being that rules over this land with a bloody, mechanical fist. Once the lift makes it to the ground it’s made apparent that the soldier will be navigating a deadly maze of sorts with each subsequent level of the factory-esque fortress being vastly different from the next, and the means of traversing between them altering greatly as well. Each level contains insanely detailed sets that were all painstakingly constructed over the course of the film’s excruciatingly long production which lasted over thirty years. It’s all executed using classic stop-motion animation techniques, that when combined with the visual style give the film a highly unique aesthetic throughout it’s eighty-three minute runtime.
As the soldier explores this waking nightmare of a world they encounter a slew of horrifying creatures that look to be the product of some deranged experiments carried out by the evil ruler and most of which want nothing more than to shed the blood of everything in their line of sight, making for some scarily intense encounters despite the film not containing a single line of spoken dialogue. There’s a handful of other humanoids inside the lair, with most of the ones that aren’t dead upon discovery meeting comically dark demises delivered by one of the aforementioned monsters. A bit later on we’re introduced to the mad scientist who’s conducting a myriad of trials within the unholy lair after the soldier discovers he’s one of many who have attempted this mission before, and it’s here that the themes of the film begin to emerge. There’s a lot of broad subtext woven into this morbidly rendered fantasy that ponder the concept of time, the meaning (or lack thereof) of our existence, and how little structure there is to the universe as a whole. It also presents a wildly unique and unbiased depiction of a higher power, allowing a wider range of possible audiences to consider the deeper meaning of these various thematics in relation to their own lives and belief systems.
There’s scenes throughout that some viewers will consider directionless, though much of the beauty is in the logically unexplainable but philosophically interpretable aspects of Mad God much like it is in life itself. It’s almost as if Tippet is questioning the validity of our very existence, drawing multiple parallels between humankind and the faceless soldier trying to accomplish their mission in a world they don’t understand. There’s a line from a Bright Eyes song that suggests “how strange it is to be anything at all” and that feels highly applicable to what he’s trying to convey with this film. Things live and die, are built and destroyed, can be drawn and erased in the blink of an eye; all without much external meaning unless we apply it ourselves. This ponderous, highly abstract method of storytelling undoubtedly won’t be for everyone but those who are able to connect with Mad God will find an extremely rewarding cinematic experience awaiting them, one that’s ripe to be watched multiple times as they continue deciphering what it has to say. You can attempt to decipher it yourself when it’s released later this year, and the briefcase full of distribution details will be planted here as it becomes available.