Although he is a film industry legend, Phil Tippett is not necessarily a household name. Toiling away behind the scenes, Tippett has had a hand in crafting some of the most memorable sequences in beloved films like Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Robocop. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, the Oscar-winning effects director has created breathtaking scenes, iconic characters and hideous nightmares.
In 1987, while working on Robocop 2, Tippett conceived the idea behind Mad God, his very own magnum opus. Working feverishly, he created thousands of sketches, models and drawings to illustrate his vision, but other commitments eventually got in the way. At the insistence of his collaborators, who discovered some of his old test footage, Tippett revived the project. Eventually he turned to Kickstarter to secure funding. Outstripping its modest funding goal of $40,000 with ease (the final sum was $124,156), Tippett worked tirelessly for 30 years to bring the project to life. By this time he had attracted an army of volunteers, including other industry titans such as Richard Beggs, an Oscar-winning sound designer, and Jason Barnett, a makeup artist with credits on Planet of the Apes and Hellboy. Together they created a feature-length film, mixing minimal live-action elements into a macabre stop-motion masterpiece.
The plot of the film is loosely sketched. We open on a depiction of a great conflagration, descending on what we must assume to be the tower of Babel. An opening scroll contains some truly chilling lines from Leviticus, with God at his bloodthirsty, Old Testament best. From there we chart the progress of a diving bell. It bears its passenger from the sky down into the deep, through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, and into the bowels of the earth. The occupant, referred to only as ‘The Assassin’, is a mysterious figure whose identity and mission are not made clear. We follow him as he treks through a terrifying landscape of industrial decay, bloodthirsty monsters, cruelty, misery and grime.
Those who search for clues to the meaning behind the chthonic journey of the protagonist of Mad God will find themselves saddled with quite the challenge. A far better approach is to simply abandon yourself to the film’s relentless, nightmare logic. It’s in equal measure an enthralling and disgusting spectacle. Like a dream, whatever meaning it may have had is fleeting, insubstantial and revealed only in its aftermath. Yet, like a dream, it can be earth-shakingly powerful and leave its protagonist forever changed (in this case, physically unrecognisable).
Particularly in the early scenes, we find ourselves thinking most often of the Jake and Dinos Chapman art installations Hell and Fucking Hell. Like the Chapmans, Tippett borrows imagery from heavy industry, World War 2 and the Holocaust. He creates a landscape in which there are no victims or perpetrators, only participants. Human figures are created, toiling at huge machines, and feeding each other into their grinding, pounding, slicing mechanisms. They shovel mountains of their own dead. They work the devices that murder them. It is a hell without moral categories, thwarting our attempts to impose meaning on it.
Who then is the titular Mad God? Tippet himself is the obvious answer. To describe Mad God as a labour of love would be not only a cliché but an understatement. In interviews, Tippett has likened his process of creation to the Carl Jung‘s attempt to map his unconscious mind in The Red Book. The terrifying vistas of Mad God are intended to represent the darker reaches of his own imagination. One year before the film was released, his devotions earned him a stay in an institution. “I had some sort of psychotic snap at the end, and it sent me to the psych ward for a while,” he explained. “It was just too much. I got too close and got burned.”
All of this is not to say that Mad God is entirely a poe-faced, introspective experience for the viewer. There’s always been a warmth to this kind of analogue animation. There is something in the jerkiness that lends itself to slapstick and the absurd. What humor there is here is usually bleak and a touch cruel, but there’s a palpable joy that comes from a filmmaker gleefully exploring how far he can push the levels of grottiness. There are also occasional hints that this is a film about the act of filmmaking, particularly the painstaking, torturous process of animation. For example, one of the layers that the diving bell descends through is a kind of hall of statues, in which we can clearly see a few Ray Harryhausen creations.
Mad God is a truly mind-boggling spectacle and a testament to the creativity and commitment of Tippett and his legions of willing volunteers. In an age of over-reliance on pure computer effects, it’s great to see a film so committed to physicality. While its plot may be wilfully obscure, it’s a gory dieselpunk fever dream that is sure to astound and delight. It also might make you feel just a little bit sick.