We’re only two years into the 2020s, and the first animated masterpiece of the decade is out: Mad God, a feature-length stop-motion animation epic 30 years in the making. The film is the opus of Hollywood visual effects artist Phil Tippett, who began the independent project in 1990 and had to resort to crowdfunding in the 2010s to complete it. Mad God was finally released at the tail-end of 2021, and is still now reaching theaters throughout the country.
Tippett achieved fame in the 70s and 80s for his work in the Star Wars trilogy and RoboCop, winning an Oscar for the creature makeup in Return of the Jedi. However, his best output has always been independent projects created at his modest Tippett Studios. In 1986, he produced an experimental short film about a dinosaur fight to the death called Prehistoric Beast, which tipped off one Steven Spielberg to Tippett’s unique talents. I first saw this short movie as part of the CBS documentary Dinosaur!, which aired on the Disney Channel when I was a kid in the 90s. Several major franchises and big awards later, Mad God was still Tippett’s passion project—one he was so dedicated to that he suffered a nervous breakdown over it.
Mad God is a daunting but mesmerizing film, and one that’s hard to accurately describe without sounding crazy yourself. It’s a sci-fi allegory made up of vignettes set in a nightmarishly decayed future. A mysterious figure in a WWI gas mask goes on an odyssey to plant a suitcase bomb at the rotted root of the world. A cruel C-section butchery extracts a deformed baby from a heavily-bandaged human on life support, just one cell among a vast grid. A cold, hunched man with Nosferatu-esque nails, played in regular speed by film director Alex Cox, plots his next move while hidden in a bunker. The deformed baby is eventually passed off to a floating wraith wearing a plague doctor mask, who then hands the baby over to an impish scientist with a face like a mass of tumors. All the while, we’re being led through a labyrinth of disturbing spectacles.
The film depicts the Earth of the future as something so horrific it defies understanding. The world is now engulfed in an eternal industrial darkness, where humanity only exists in a horribly mutated, half-living form. The Earth’s inhabitants are now mostly faceless, vaguely-human zombies and murderous dinosaurian cyclopses. Everything is trying to kill or evade whatever comes within arm’s reach. Every being we see here is either being tortured, or torturing its cellmates through brute force or technology. Each creature seems to come right out of the uncanny valley, while each environ evokes visions of hate, war, and sickness from our own history.
Though comparisons inevitably fall short, the look of this future is a little bit like the paintings of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński—shrouded in darkness and twisted, but with a mystical sense of awe and truly massive scale behind it. The grit, gore and obsessively-detailed industrial wreckage bring to mind anime classics like Memories and Akira. The body horror is in David Cronenberg’s territory. It’s hard not to see a bit of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, both in that nightmare baby and in the film’s sheer bleakness. The living, breathing texture of Mad God makes it unlike anything that could be attempted solely with 3D-animated effects.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Mad God is how so much of it is not meant to be understood literally, but instead felt and pondered over intuitively. The gore and violence are disturbing at first, but eventually you start seeing a purpose in it. Maybe this violence is the only way humanity, or what’s left of it, can cope with the ruin it has inherited. And it also seems like there’s some kind of hierarchy that exists in this cruel future: weak bodies without minds at the bottom, brutish bodies in the middle, keen minds encased in weak bodies at the top. While this world seems to be in flux, order has emerged: the strong and cunning dominating the weak.
At multiple points, it feels like the film is about to pull back to reveal a trick. Is this or that narrative thread just a dream in the mind of one of the characters, like the body on the operating table or the vampiric man in the bunker? But the film never gives a straightforward answer as to what is fantasy and what is reality. That line becomes increasingly thin towards the film’s close, which suddenly departs Earth for the rest of the cosmos.
Mad God‘s bleak genius could be that it tells us what we may not want to hear, in maybe the most elaborately detailed and imaginative way possible for a film on this scale, sans 3D-animated prettiness. It’s practically an inversion of what 2001: A Space Odyssey told us 60 years ago. While 2001 was a tribute to humankind’s potential to transcend itself through technological vision, Mad God is a vision of humankind’s endless potential to use technology in service of inhuman destruction and cruelty. It’s a misanthrope’s vision of humanity’s destiny, but constructed so obsessively you can’t help but admire it.