Sometimes the back story of a movie is more interesting than the movie itself. Phil Tippett is a legendary special effects maven who has worked on some of Hollywood’s most prestigious and popular sci-fi and fantasy films, including Robocop and Starship Troopers. However, while he was coming up with the images and technology to make those films what they were he was working on his own film, reportedly for 30 years. The long gestation period was not due to artistic uncertainty or lack of funds, but rather to the painstaking nature of the work itself. Mad God uses stop-action animation, which is time-consuming; but Tippett also designed the sets, which are consistently elaborate and detailed, not to mention the myriad beings that populate the movie, each one a study in bizarre anatomy and sartorial craziness. The fact that many of these elements only appear on the screen for a second or two was apparently not something that particularly bothered Tippett. He had a vision and he was going to achieve it at any cost.
The narrative lines are as complicated and intricate as the mise-en-scene, which means that Mad God is often impossible to follow, and best appreciated as a cornucopia of dystopian images. The protagonist is referred to in the credits as the Last Man (voiced by Alex Cox, though much of the dialogue is incoherent), a character dressed in steam-punk couture who descends into a wet, rust-encrusted netherworld filled with industrial detritus and dismembered dolls. Consulting a map at every turn, the Last Man appears to be on some kind of deadly mission, and the movie’s plot takes on the trappings of an odyssey, with each new location providing a distinct episode of danger and lunacy. The dystopian ideas are expressed in scenes showing slave-like minions made of straw performing various kinds of labor, some industrial, some military in nature, while being tormented and often killed by bizarre creatures that seem to be carrying out the wishes of a cadre of overlords depicted in background stock footage shown on monitors (this footage contains the only images of actual human beings). Among the ruins there are also doctors experimenting on humanoid forms in the goriest manner and scientists testing terrifying weapons. Female sexual subjugation is rampant and obvious.
Mad God is so dense with outrageous visual information that the horrors eventually outpace themselves and simply become curious pictures. Whatever Tippett is trying to say remains obscured by his wealth of inventiveness—there are enough unique ideas here to undergird a dozen animated features, but he seems determined to throw them all together. Though not as emotionally affecting as the work of Czech master Jan Svankmajer, Mad God may be the last word in animated horror, even if its overall effect is one of wonder rather than disgust.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
Mad God home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Tippett Studio