Director: Phil Tippett
Writer: Phil Tippett
Stars: Alex Cox, Niketa Roman, Satish Ratakonda
How do you describe “Mad God 2022,” the stop-motion animated fantasy that took writer/director and special effects innovator Phil Tippett some 30 years to complete? “Mad God” doesn’t really have a conventional plot. Rather there are a handful of characters, including the Assassin, the Surgeon (two voice actors), the Alchemist (three), and the Last Human. And they are all at cross purposes or looking for a way out. Imagine, if you will, a dystopian nightmare set in a post-industrialized world that is always teetering on its last legs, but never quite collapsing.
Admittedly, this description doesn’t say much, but the film is less a narrative parable than a dazzling and corrosively cynical vision of a hyper-compartmentalized society struggling both to die and to reboot itself. Tippett’s overwhelming descent into his own identity is also inevitably revealed to be a miraculous creation of his own. Beautiful and disgusting, petty and impressive, “Mad God” looks like several people died to make it exactly the way you see it.
“Mad God” is a microcosm of amoral scavengers who keep their motives to themselves and are always seconds away from being devoured and/or reused by the next derangoid that shows up. First there is the Assassin, a humanoid soldier who, clad in a gas mask and steampunk-style iron armor, travels to a running suitcase base to plant an explosive that he never detonates. He guides him to a treasure map that crumbles in his hands as he tiptoes around giant monsters and featureless homunculi. Everyone is smashed, dismembered, or pulverized, sometimes to eat, sometimes because they get in the way of oncoming traffic.
The Assassin’s story soon gives way to a subplot involving the Surgeon, the Nurse (Niketa Roman), and a tentacle-like monster that resembles the baby “Eraserhead” after reaching (hard) puberty. Then there’s another story involving Cox’s Last Human, who sends a different Assassin on another journey, guided by a slimy new map that’s stitched together by a trio of witches that the Last Human keeps under his desk. Everyone is looking for something, but it’s often hard to know what until they find it or just set off the next domino.
A lot of people will see and maybe should see “Mad God” because of how it looks. After all, this is a movie that advertises what it’s about through its production design and densely layered soundtrack. Animated figures made of slime and mulch roll around a collection of dynamically photographed and compulsively arranged ensembles of models who pay explicit homage to or sit comfortably alongside the stop-motion marvels of pioneering animators Ray Harryhausen, Willis Harold O’Brien and Jan Švankmajer. . It’s amazing that this movie exists, is what I’m trying to say.
That said: Tippett’s characters act in ways that, by sheer juxtaposition, fit the patterns of behavior that the characters reveal. Hoodoo doll-style peoploids bump into each other, either to complete their slave labor tasks or to forcefully take what they want. Everyone turns a blind eye to survive. In some scenes, the characters seem to enjoy or simply accept the daily reality of being surveyed. In every scene, there is a wistful certainty that whatever comes next won’t necessarily be friendly or sensible beyond its basic selfish function: as long as I can get mine, everyone/other stuff can go to hell.
“Mad God” is like a Rabelaisian protest against modern society, which is strange if you think of the present as a single moment divorced from the history of our hopelessly polarized, war-torn, and ruinously self-absorbed society. There are no clear signs of our specific present, although if you squint, can you see Putin and Trump fucking dry? As you can imagine, given how long it took to make “Mad God.” But there are plenty of signs that Tippett’s film is, at heart, about how life persists meaninglessly despite its barbaric conditions and the prevailing death drive.
Tippett’s movie is also a lot of fun in a youthful sense, as everyone is a second away from being squashed by a giant Gilliam-esque foot. The Assassin carries one of many explosives while the Alchemist wants to create a new world which, as we see in a prophetic montage, will probably develop and then collapse. Everyone is fair because we are all subject to the same bloody and disgusting terms and conditions.