They’ve done studies on why a baby’s crying immediately fills us with panic. It’s a sound refined through eons of human development to be as alarming as possible, incapable of being ignored or tuned out. In Mad God, the nigh-indescribable film resulting from 30 years of labor from stop-motion master Phil Tippett, there is a stretch where the only sound is the squalling of a misshapen infantile creature, swaddled in rags and covered in gore, as it is carried to an inevitable doom by a silent and uncaring phantom clad in a plague doctor’s crow-proboscis mask. The sequence seems to last forever, and it’s because of the screaming. This interminable moment of suffering is somehow even more upsetting than nearly all of the gory, fetid, sadistic tableau in the hour prior to it.
If you are at all a fan or admirer of animation—that illusory medium that’s so often restricted to telling children’s stories—it’s essential viewing.
Speaking about his medium in an interview, Tippett paraphrased Roger Ebert when asked what it is about stop-motion animation that so fascinates: “Computer graphics look real but feel fake, and stop motion looks fake but feels real.” He said director Joe Johnston, with whom he worked on the special effects for The Empire Strikes Back, called it “an unholy art.”
Stop-motion isn’t just the medium Tippett has worked in since the 1970s. It really is his medium, notwithstanding the incredible work that other artists like those at LAIKA Studios have done. He is responsible for the hulking walkers and a bunch of the creatures in Star Wars; the entire first act of The Empire Strikes Back is filled with his expertise. Every blackly comedic beat revolving around the walking, talking human rights violation that is ED-209 in the RoboCop series was crafted by him. He brought the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to life, and the bugs of Starship Troopers.
I write often write about animation and about how it is maybe the truest movie magic. Tippett’s animation is almost always done in service of other directors’ visions. The guy’s only other feature-length credit as director is the made-for-TV Starship Troopers 2, a sequel to someone else’s work. Mad God represents the first time Tippett, one of the most respected living artists in his medium, has been given a completely blank slate and all the time he needs to do whatever completely original idea springs forth from his mind. It’s a dark and gory miracle that it exists at all: Tippett had the idea in 1990, shelved it, and then resurrected it through crowdfunding in 2010.
There’s little in the way of plot in Mad God, no dialogue, and no explicit motivation for anything happening. The only meaning you get out of it is what you interpret for yourself, meaning that a lot of viewers will inevitably hate it or find themselves confused. Even if you love it, it’s liable to be a tough watch, especially for those with sensory issues.
The movie opens on the depiction of darkness falling over a tower raised to the sky and surrounded by roaring multitudes, followed by words from Leviticus detailing the punishments for disobedience against God. A pod lowers through the exploding flak of a militarized state, depositing an interloper whose features are completely concealed under bulky, First World War-era protective equipment, as if breathing the very air would kill them. They descend into a nightmarish realm filled with miserable creatures whose disordered lives are part of some terrible order, some foul purpose that must serve some unthinkably foul master.
We know very little about our protagonist. They are here to destroy this place (we discover at whose behest but not why). Their journey leading up to the initial descent paints a picture of a world at war and in ruins. They fail utterly in their goal, and we are left with images that invite us to ponder whether there is any world in which they ever might have succeeded.
Individual scenes in Mad God flow together only loosely, though there’s a kind of four-act structure: The hero’s descent, their capture and horrifying torture, their memories of how their doomed journey began, and then the pathetic journey of the screaming babe I mentioned above. All of it is brought to life through a preponderance of stop-motion animation and the occasional live-action actor, though there are moments you won’t entirely be certain what exactly it is you’re looking at. If Tippett used computers anywhere besides the editing suite, you cannot tell: His world is made of oxidized metal, oozing fluids and tortured flesh, all of which you can feel and smell.
This is to say that it feels as if Mad God actually took 30 years to make. Tippett has said that he went through a period of absolutely hating the film as he was working on it, and suffered a mental breakdown about a year prior to finishing it. It seems impossible that anybody could have worked on such a profoundly disturbing film and not come away from it having suffered to some degree in the undertaking.
Animation, the masters tell us, is an illusion of life. It’s actual magic, and so no matter what method you use, it’s hard to do in a way that live-action filmmaking simply never will be. It’s partly why animated features in the United States are released so sparingly: We outsourced the work to Asia long ago (even Disney, to an extent), and the only films the industry deems worth animating must cater to the broadest possible audiences. Doing it without studio clout behind you is a good way to burn yourself the hell out, as Nova Seed writer/director/animator-whose-entire-hands-were-covered-in-bandages-by-the-end Nick DiLiberto could attest. Some of Ralph Bakshi’s most incredible movies evoke the urban grunge of the ’70s, tackle racism in the United States and use pop music to trace the story of a family across generations. If you put together everyone who’s seen even one of those movies, you wouldn’t have as many as have seen The Emperor’s New Groove. Even LAIKA, folks with a weird and dark bent to their kid-friendly fare similar to Don Bluth’s oeuvre, struggle to release films quickly and never to as much financial or popular acclaim as Disney’s annual firehose.
Mad God is an insane work of unbelievable intricacy, a cry of despair from a guy who had this inside of his head all the way back when he was supervising the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. It only happened because Tippett—a legend who animated stuff for Star Wars AND RoboCop AND Jurassic Park—went to Kickstarter. It’s proof of his genius and craft, and a meta-statement about just how little we reward true imagination in the most imaginative medium.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.