Movie Recommendation: Mad God
Dir. Phil Tippett, 2021
I don't watch movies with the mindset of providing a critical review or seeking movies to write about. Rather these recommendation posts reflect moments I finished watching a movie and felt driven to tell the world about it!
I only recommend movies I'm excited about and eager for you to see.
To be clear from the top: this is not a “they don’t make films like this anymore” situation, this is a “they don’t make films like this” situation. Movies like this come along once a generation — literally. Phil Tippett had been producing Mad God off and on as a passion project for over 30 years.
I only heard about this movie recently, and that was the basic pitch: Phil Tippett, creatures and special effects technician behind films like the first Jurassic Park, early Star Wars movies, and the Robocop series, made a feature length dark stop motion animation. He had been tinkering with it around when CG began to proliferate, so he set it aside in the fear that audiences wouldn’t be interested in seeing old-fashioned effects like stop-motion; later, his community rallied around getting him to finish it, and he crowdfunded from fans to get it done. A fairly solid independent film backstory.
But holy geez, this film is good, and in a way that simply can’t be replicated. I don’t believe anyone else could have made this film, and I suspect even if Phil Tippett followed it up with another dark stop-motion animation, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s clear that decades of imagination and id spilled out into the creation of this thing, something that could only have come out of one person’s passion, hopes, and fears.
The story involves a gas-masked saboteur sent down by The Last Man (played beautifully by Alex Cox, director of Sid & Nancy and Repo Man) to destroy a hellish underworld that has infected the surface world with zombie warfare. The saboteur’s attempt is bungled, but the agents of the underworld retrieve from him a seed — albeit a sickly, disgusting, squirmy seed — that turns out to hold the key to the world’s renewal.
That loose framework creates a nightmarish hellscape for Tippett to unload his darkest ideas into. And there’s where Mad God transcends dark animation as a genre and becomes Tippett’s personal expression.
. You’re horrified but you can’t look away, even when the inevitable just keeps occurring.
I feel most movies that try to ramp up through scene after scene of terrors will invariably begin to reference classic, familiar monsters from famous mythos and popular culture to fill in space. In Mad God, you only get the Furies, a minotaur, and a couple UFO jokes — admittedly built around a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference which was the only on-the-nose reference of the movie. The rest of the 80 minute movie is full of imaginative new creations I can’t even sum up, each more intense and visceral than the last. These are all, truly, Tippett’s monsters.
And the world is just flush with detail, both in the set-pieces and sound design. As a nightmare it’s quite a lot like a sleep paralysis dream
At this point in my life I’m not squeamish or discomfited by fantasy horror elements, but a couple scenes of this movie even managed to push my threshold, which is remarkable.
There’s one difficulty in writing this recommendation, and that is that a lot of the experience of watching this movie simply can’t be described. It solidly, skillfully uses movie logic, dream logic, and stop-motion logic that creates an experience beyond language. The French New Wave people were very interested in this idea of True Cinema being the types of movies that simply couldn’t be talked about or written down, and stop-motion has a peculiarity to it, in how the motion looks, its compression and re-orientation of perspective, and its three-dimensional, textural qualities, that makes a stronger argument for True Cinema than live-action.
A lot of what took my breath away cannot be described, and can only be hinted at in the frames I share.
This also means I recommend you see this theatrically, as I did, or if it’s not available in your area, with as large a screen as you can muster with the sound turned up and the lights turned down.
I try to avoid “played (critical quality) by” attributions in these reviews to distance them from reviews, but Alex Cox has an amazing presence — I’m happy to report in real life as well as on screen — and fit perfectly into this movie.
I am intimately familiar with sleep paralysis, and have made my own movies concerning the experience, including one currently closing out a festival run.