Phil Tippett’s new film Mad God opens with an image of a massive, billowing creature emerging from the top of a stepped pyramid, which is then destroyed by bolts of lightning. Then comes an especially vicious passage from the untreated abscess of the Old Testament, Leviticus. (“You shall eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters.”) The rest of the film doesn’t get any lighter or brighter than that. It will in no way diminish the experience of the first-time viewer to know that a third of the way through the film, the character who up to that point has been the movie’s focus is casually tortured and slaughtered, to polite applause from well-dressed, silhouetted spectators.
The movie, which began streaming on Shudder on June 16, is this: stop-motion animation, without context, or reason. A figure in a get-up not unlike a World War I soldier’s descends from somewhere in a diving bell-like contraption into let’s call it a hellscape. His mission is to blow up… something. (He is known, in the credits only, as The Assassin.) He has a map that disintegrates the further he travels. Along the way we witness a procession of the grotesque and atrocious. Giant tardigrades slaughtered for meat; crushed gnomes; a legless thing catches another, smaller thing, only to itself be cleaved in two by another, bigger, meaner thing; a room full of giants, all electrocuted and shitting themselves, the shit then fed to an enormous beast. And then there are the drones. Identical woolen beings, kinda-sorta humanish and very flimsy, hell’s labor force, killed desultorily by what- or whomever happens to be passing by. (There’s also a pit of fire in which they can immolate themselves, if they are so inclined.)
What there is not: narrative, or character, or dialogue, unless you count hectoring gibberish from a bleeding, baby-voiced double-mouth as dialogue. Nothing happens without something being hurt. Nothing happens but something being hurt. Mad God doesn’t wallow in violence, nor does it sanction or elevate it. It’s simply an unspooling of painstakingly made brutality. It’s brilliant, but it’s also what it looks like.
All of The Assassin’s progress—and also that of his subsequent replacement—is downward, through strata and substrata, past bones, so many bones, into different tiers of whatever world this is. The movie is, quite literally, a downer. “Space… defies the vertical logic of revelation,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, “which insists there is something beneath the surface of our every day—be it the ultimate meaning, the face of God, our fundamental nature, a final terror, ecstacy, or judgment, or some combo of the above—that will be revealed when the veil is lifted.”
Mad God is, obviously, not the first work of art built on an edifice of brutality. Nelson catalogs quite a few in her book, and was writing in the passage above about the experience of watching Paul and Damon McCarthy’s gruesome video installation Caribbean Pirates. And yet she could just as easily be talking about the world of Mad God. If observing violence makes the observer complicit in it, the least we can ask for is a sense of why. That grace is not afforded here, or even hinted at. “If asked what Mad God is about,” Tippett told an interviewer with The Fabulist. “I say it’s about scale and process and time.”
Scale, process, and time are not abstract concepts, here. It took Tippett 30 years to make Mad God. A pioneer in special effects and one of the last great stop-motion artists—Nick Park, Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay; that’s most of it—Tippett most famously created the creepy chess game aboard the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars and the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps more notably for our purposes here, he also animated ED-209, the featureless, homicidal, tragicomic policebot in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Steven Spielberg hired him to create the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park but changed his mind when he saw what computers could do.
Creatively and psychically, Spielberg’s decision was a massive turning point not just in how movies are made, but how they feel and are. The stuttering, seizing movement of stop-motion had now been effectively obviated by the seamless, zipless uncanniness of CGI. (Spielberg still kept Tippett around to animate the dinosaurs’ expressions and such.) In 1990, Tippett had begun working on his own stop-motion project in his own studio. It was produced in fits and starts over the subsequent decades, regularly abandoned and restarted as Tippett worked on other films, with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers being the most memorable. It was only after a $120,000 Kickstarter campaign launched in 2013 that the studio was able to, slowly, purchase new equipment and supplies and, gradually, bring in groups of veteran effects producers, art students, and assorted volunteers came to work on the film, and, finally, or statutorily, Mad God was completed.
Tippett has repeatedly said that he hates Mad God. The process of being consumed with something he detested so much culminated with him being briefly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. Given what the film is, this seems almost too fitting, and it might well be: Tippett has told interviewers the hospitalization occurred both before and after the movie’s completion. Depression warps memory. Depression while tinkering in the abyss would leave memory in shreds. It’s not difficult to read the movie’s title as being a reference to its creator, who is after all the overseeing power devising and conducting all this violence, the one presence in this brutal world who is fully aware and in control of what he’s doing. This raises an interesting question about the use of mad in the title. Is it mad as in deranged or mad as in furious? An unhinged god unleashing chaos capriciously, or an irate god that has some mission behind the brutality, even if it’s not evident to the audience?
In his interview with The Fabulist, Tippett said it was impossible for the movie not to be “some kind of reflection of the era, the gestalt of the time.” This is true as far as it goes; thirty years will give you a lot of gestalt. Still, it is striking how much a Movie of Today Mad God is, and not just because of how it consummates the broader culture’s flirtation with meaninglessness and embodies the acceleration of sudden commonplace violence. On repeated viewings of the movie, I found myself paying less attention to The Assassin(s), or the spectacle of the slaughter, or the willful incoherence of the nightmarish sweep of the film.
Instead, I realized I was drawn more and more to the drones, the flimsy, highly expendable laborer things; “time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars,” to borrow the words of Annie Dillard. They trudge and work in service of who knows what; their rewards are the most frequent, least spectacular deaths. Let’s not dig too deep for meaning. A flicker of empathy sparks at the edge of the carnage. We can leave it at that. Mad God is awash, even borne along by, an ambient and inchoate brutality and the steady, unremarkable devaluation of life. Both are true, both are present, in our every moment, right now; some prescience is easier to enjoy than others. Perhaps what’s most stirring—and horrific—is the fate of that frail current and its countless, faceless, voiceless passengers, all running persistently beneath the raging surface.