LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! This year marks a milestone in dedication, creativity, and perhaps a slight dash of creative insanity with the release of visual effects maestro Phil Tippett’s long-gestating stop-motion feature Mad God.
Tippett is revered within the industry, with a body of work dating all the way back to the original Star Wars as his holographic chess game taught us all to “let the Wookiee win.” Since then, his craft can be witnessed in groundbreaking films such as Robocop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers. For the past three decades, he has been slowly, meticulously bringing to life a world of stop-motion Miltonian magic and horror. Finally, after all those years, Tippett’s labor of love has been unveiled.
With it, Tippett disproves his declaration of “I’ve just become extinct” at the onset of the CGI revolution by giving birth to his passion project that dates back to 1987. After initially being shelved for decades, it once again moved into production thanks in large part to a Kickstarter campaign. Funnily enough, light is hard to come by in the world of Mad God, which is a dark, dank world of chaos and twisted brilliance that makes Tool’s Sober music video seem like an episode of My Little Pony. It’s an anarchistic world where steampunk and flesh converge and never-ending levels of fresh hell await.
“…he descends into a world of nightmarish visions…”
Opening with a fiery passage from Leviticus, we are introduced to our protagonist, The Assassin, who resembles an old-school miner in a tin helmet and gas mask. He is essentially our guide as he descends into a world of nightmarish visions: faceless factory drones are spewed out of a machine only to be needlessly destroyed and replaced, toothy maggots that cry like a baby, and an endless supply of fresh, squishy grue.
There is dialogue, but it’s mostly infant gibberish piped through loudspeakers to all inhabitants, as Mad God is far more interested in world-building than narrative thrust. As the journey continues, we are introduced to live-action performers, such as The Last Man (played by mad-god director Alex Cox), which sidesteps from its miniatures in motion and feels slightly out of place, despite the addition of body horror these scenes contain.
When it returns to its full stop-motion world, it’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life (which Tippett cited as an influence). Every frame provides us with enough nightmare fuel for years to come: roaches with human skulls, mutants created by excrement from giants in electric chairs, and countless combinations of flora/fauna flotsam with corroded metal jetsam. Influences from other fantasy and sci-fi titles are buried throughout, including an item bearing striking similarities to R2-D2, a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith, and even some characters resembling Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. Speaking of Jim Henson, if you’ve ever been curious to see Henson anthropomorphize a s*****m, there is a hooded character that echos Hoggle, from Labyrinth, with boils.
Tippett himself said he did not intend Mad God to adhere to any strict narrative structure, so it’s best to merely soak in the sumptuous, detailed visuals and extract your own meaning from the journey. It’s a ferociously engaging, if slightly flawed, viewing experience. Be warned, though, that it should not be taken by those with delicate constitutions. It’s a singular vision that is a testament to commitment, craftsmanship, and skill that is a twisted tribute to a cinematic art form that proves it is still full of life.
Mad God screened at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival.
"…a twisted tribute to a cinematic art form..."