REVIEW: Mad God (2021)

dir. Phil Tippett

Opening with an operatic score, we cut to what appears to be the Tower of Babel, a conical structure thrust into a blood-red sky with a dark figure atop. In the biblical narrative, the tower was a sign of mankind’s rebellion against God – a collective attempt to touch heaven through human effort rather than accepting the need for saving grace – and was destroyed. So too here God – or some kind of deity – appears enraged, thunderous clouds descending. Lightning obliterates the skyward figure before a black pall engulfs the tower and all is night. Cut. Title.

It’s a bold opening, and one emblematic of all that is to follow. For Phil Tippett’s stop-motion directorial debut has been more than 30 years in the making, filming having originally begun when the two-time Oscar-winning effects maestro was working on Robocop 2 (his other credits include Starship Troopers and Jurassic Park). The project was then shelved when Steven Spielberg’s dino-blockbuster convinced him that the days of stop-motion were finished: however twenty years later, with encouragement from those within his studio, a crew of volunteers and ultimately Kickstarter funding, Tippett was able to progress work on his magnum opus, a process which – by his own admission – contributed to a mental breakdown.

This obsessional devotion – and rich seam of titular madness – is in every frame of the finished article, a film which pulsates, drips and shits with the kind of hallucinogenic nightmare fuel more usually associated with a David Lynch picture.

Following the opening Babel-tableaux, an inter-title quote from Leviticus cements the idea of divine – or at least god-complex – wrath, before we are met with a post-apocalyptic Earth. From the smoky sky a diving bell descends, and though it’s met with a barrage of artillery fire it continues downwards, through a fissure in the earth, and into a Dante-esque underworld. From the chamber a masked figure emerges, and from here we – at least nominally – follow them as they explore a subterranean world of mechanical monstrosities, troglodytes and industrialised hellscapes.

To be clear, Mad God eschews any literal reading, but is instead carefully calibrated to provoke visceral emotional reactions: disgust, distress and – with an elegiac score from Dan Wool – empathy. There’s more than a whiff of Eraserhead too with its marriage of thumping machinery and leaking bodies, a thematic link which becomes more established as the “narrative” progresses.

There are times when the experience is overwhelming, the visuals (though beautifully composed) too much, for despite the slight run-time Tippett’s text is so dense – like still-screaming bodies crushed in a trash compactor – the compound horror of it all is almost unbearable. And yet afterwards, having survived the ordeal, one cannot help but reflect back on the images endured. Parallels, meta-narratives, symbols and – perhaps – slithers of hope emerge. It might have been hell to go through, but such a singular vision deserves to be seen, if only once.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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