More famously known for his visual effects work on such timeless classics as Star Wars and Jurassic Park, Phil Tippett never quite successfully pivoted into filmmaking proper. While his illustrious career saw him recognized with various accolades (including Oscars and Emmys aplenty) in both its stop-motion and CGI phases, he only ever sat in the director’s chair for a handful of shorts, alongside a soon-forgotten made-for-TV sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Tippett began work on an independent project even before Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, but it quickly languished in development hell with the advent of his visual effects studio. Mad God, the said project, has after 30 years of painful budgetary constraints and ten of painstaking hand-crafted animation finally come to fruition: Packed with a maelstrom of grandiosity and chaos for the entirety of its 83-minute runtime, Tippett’s labor of love comprises stews of steampunk, body horror, and religious mythology, offering nothing less than a ravishing sensory experience of lurid phantasmagoria, molded less in the vein of Bertrand Mandico’s pop psychedelia than in an apocalyptic inferno.
And what an inferno it is, in more sense than one. A sweltering desolation accompanies our sojourn as Mad God descends into the nethers of hell, mirroring the path taken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno. Traversing endless, anachronistically connected tissues of untold cruelty and horror, a diving bell housing our unnamed protagonist — gas-masked and clad in cyberpunk gear, ostensibly to shield against the noxious purgatory that awaits him — is lowered through the earth, past fantastical realms of carnage, bone, and bloodshed. Coming to a halt on the twilit surface of a battlefield, the bell delivers its resident, gameplay-style, onto the latter’s next quest: to penetrate even deeper subterranean ground, journeying across impossible parallel universes co-signed by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pier Paolo Pasolini in order to plant a bomb to destroy them. And so Tippett’s odyssey, equally compelling and off-putting, enmeshes the viewer in a maximalist excess not too formally different from the likes of Flying Lotus’ trippily mutated Kuso, abetting its dream logic with lurid visions of the scatological and profane. Yet where one might tend to categorize the latter work as replete with irony given its primarily digitized designs, this label applies less to Mad God, a creation through whose profanity emerges a sanctity etched by its creator’s endearing commitment to practical effects, reflective themselves of time passing, from the 1990s to the present day.
This commitment underscores Tippett’s sincerity in appraising the thematic and aesthetic spectacle of its images; each frame of Mad God’s maddeningly hallucinatory world realizes a somber truth of mankind’s eternal penchant for conflict and evil, intricately fleshed out through both the comical and the grotesque. This ahistorical film proffers, in fact, a historical thesis of pessimism concerning humanity’s cyclical violence, as its hellscapes span both antiquity and modernity, beginning with the wrath of God in Leviticus and tracing the anachronisms of plagues, trench warfare, slavery, sexual depravity, medical institutions, and so on. Recalling the fantastical world-building of both Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, Mad God capitalizes on those radical cultural summations to concoct, out of Tippett’s frenzied mind, a troubled, personal, and wholly original statement of the aching human heart.
Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.