Locarno 2021 review: Mad God (Phil Tippett)

Phil Tippett is a legend in visual effects in movies, first with his work in stop-motion (Star Wars, Robocop), and then computer animation (Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, and their sequels) once the latter took over from the former. When this takeover happened at the beginning of the nineties, Tippett uttered the famous phrase, “I’ve just become extinct!” that Steven Spielberg reused in Jurassic Park. Nevertheless, Mad God is proof that Tippett is far from extinct. He even proceeded as if he were an unknown rookie making his first feature film (if we all agree to forget Starship Troopers 2, made directly for DVD in 2004 – Tippett directed it after having created the creature effects on the first one), despite approaching age 70 later this year. Originally initiated in the late eighties, then shelved for more than two decades, Mad God was finally put in motion thanks to a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, giving Tippett the means to produce it independently and present it after almost ten more years of work by him and his crew. Impressively, the last line of the credits reads: ‘shot at Berkeley studios, 1987-2020’.

For Mad God Tippett went back to his true love: stop-motion animation of meticulously handcrafted figurines and movie sets (a few scenes shot with real actors occur along the way, but they prove far less convincing and riveting). By immersing the audience back in a pre-CGI era Mad God has a definite anachronistic feel to it, like a raw and frantic next of kin of The Dark Crystal. Besides the classic by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the other references that come to mind while discovering the gnarly hell of a world that is Mad God, are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, for the omnipresence of carnage and monstrosities, and the movie Tetsuo by Shinya Tsukamoto, for the brutal blending of flesh and metal. Tippett said he wanted to reach out to our ‘feral mind’ with his film. To do so, there is no dialogue whatsoever in Mad God, but gorgeous original music composed by Dan Wool which leads our way from scene to scene. Moreover, what Tippett creates is a dialogue with our eyes, as he gives us so much to see in each shot of his miniature-scale epic. Every element is full of detail and of life to an incredible extent, so that the many gory visions feel much more harrowing and stomach-turning than they would in a live-action movie.

At first, we follow The Assassin, a soldier hidden behind his helmet and his gas mask, as he progresses through an underworld full of horror and danger – factories whose workers are killed senselessly and instantly replaced, rows of electrified giants, baby wails coming out of freak creatures. Other figures come to the forefront in the second half, which is more patchy and nebulous and loses a bit of strength. Still, on the whole, Tippett’s effort is astounding. Rather than a narrative closure, his goal in Mad God truly is to go back in time, and into the memory of his art, even further to before the age of CGI. The film feels as if it has been pulled out of the dawn of cinema, embracing the pictorial style of expressionist films from the silent era, and creating multiple variations on one of the seminal images of horror cinema: the close-up shot of an eye being sliced in Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. Eyes in close-up, more or less disturbing, are everywhere in Mad God. Maybe it is our eye, waiting to be sliced by terror. Or maybe it is the eye of the director, the one true mad god creating a hectic universe, itself in turn full of other pocket universes.