Beginning with a (literal) scroll of Leviticus Chapter 26–you know, the part where God says all the nasty things he’s gonna do if you forget to pay the cable bill—Phil Tippett’s Mad God is aptly named.
But it isn’t a moral lesson or parable or even a proper narrative. Picture something more along the lines of Émile Zola binge watching Chris Mars videos, dropping acid, and not writing about boobies for two seconds. For as dreamy and impenetrable Tippett’s film is, its worldview is pretty clear, and it’s not so far removed from the literary Naturalism of Zola or Stephen Crane.
The “story” concerns a figure dressed like a miner (similar looking to the killer in My Bloody Valentine), who descends through levels or universes, full of crazy monsters and suffering, smaller creatures. Bigger entities rule the roost, and they prop up their societies with the blood and exploitation of their lesser world inhabitants. Sometimes, the rulers even create sentient beings for labor and regard them as extremely dispensable.
In one early scene, two elf-like creatures are haggling over something. The perspective changes, and you realize they are like ants compared to the miner’s boots, who absent-mindedly steps on them. Therefore, the hierarchy of existence and power is relative and arbitrary, a scale and perspective no man can actually see from our vantage point on this earth. We are prisoners to our own existence and completely dispensable to nature and the ruling class who harnesses its natural (and unnatural) advantages against us. Our concept of god can only be of a higher (bigger) being than our own rulers, and he must truly not give a damn—or just actively hates us.
That’s a tedious academic interpretation of Mad God (let us not even get into Marx's division of labor and commodity mystification). The film isn't a philosophy paper. In fact, Tippett’s world is extremely vibrant. Yes, macabre, dystopian, and hellish. But fully alive and breathing.
And it’s done using only stop motion animation, puppetry, rear projection, and some scattered live acting (hi Alex Cox!). Tippett took the effects mastery he built on such films as RoboCop and Jurassic Park, and over the course of 30 years, fashioned together a singular and beautiful film. If I didn’t know how long the project was in production, I never would have guessed. There ain't a seam to be seen.
There’s also no getting around the fact that Mad God is left of the dial. It’s arthouse and strange and surely not for everyone. But if you’re like me and relish Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts or the ED-209 from RoboCop blasting folks away, this is an entire fucking film of that. All creature, no plot.
Toss in a killer soundtrack, and you have my favorite film of 2022. So far.