As a special effects, and animation, showpiece, it doesn’t get better than Mad God. The end credit’s proudly call it ‘Phil Tippett’s Mad God’, and this is earned. Tippet is the special effects genius who worked on the stop motion in the original Star Wars trilogy, the effects for Temple of Doom (say what you want about Temple of Doom, the effects aren’t the problem), ED-209 in RoboCop. the creatures in Starship Troopers and so much more. With all these designs under his belt, these other worldly creatures, the moniker of Mad God seems fitting, the title referring to the process of this film as much as it does the narrative. After all, this is Tippett unleashed: a raw insight into his brain and his creative spark. It is everything, a non-stop onslaught of overwhelming imagery. So much sound, so much fury. But, to continue to paraphrase the Bard, there’s little signified through all of this.
Before dissecting where Mad God falls short, it is important to point out what a feat of creativity it is. This is a mixed-media film. Most of it is stop-motion (more Jan Švankmajer (of Alice fame) than Aardman (or even Laika)) but it is also a smorgasbord of different approaches. The film functions as a cinematic history tour of the effects business, throwing in everything and doing it with such skill. The visual creativity and the level of detail is sublime, jaw-dropping as a piece of design, beguiling as a contraption. And it knows it, the film functioning more as a twisted It’s a Small World After All ride than as a narrative work, as we propulsively push forward from spectacle to spectacle, gazing at both extended homage and sheer originality. If anything, it feels like a video game, an arty platformer like Inside (or Limbo), or even something like Little Nightmares. It has the feel of a side scrolling adventure, as we pass through screens where the backdrop is the appeal: an excuse to show off madness and art design. However, in those games you have something in the foreground; it is allowed to be an art installation as it’s the backdrop to a video game, the main thing you are doing. Here, the lack of foreground is apparent; it’s a passive adventure that you can marvel at but maybe won’t be invested in.
At no point does it try to be a narrative work, though. It is a free-associative but thematically consistent journey into Miltonian hell. It is expanded from three short films (proofs of concept to get this made) and, to be honest, very much feels like it. At eighty-three minutes, it is a transition from wonder to passivity. The opening third will astonish, the visual creativity always enough for engagement, and then it just keeps going. The cohesion is impressive, it is all grotesque and richly detailed stuff, but the cohesion also starts to work against it. The film becomes looping sequences of nihilism, of the same cycles again and again: gross thing projects some gross fluid or smashes something down, this death or decay is then used to build something and everything has the feel of a sadistic Rube Goldberg machine. There is a thematic echo here, a reflection of the film’s process in which hard, destructive labour is the only source of creation. This makes Mad God a depressing watch for the wrong reasons, an exhibition of pain rather than of joy. It may be a very valid observation but no argument is made out of it; cynicism and nihilism are eventualities here. To live is to suffer. After a while, it’s just a lot. As a viewer, I retreated into just technical appreciation, no longer finding thematic engagement fruitful.
In the end, the film is Tippett showing off his toys. And, oh my, these are wonderful toys. The visual imagination is unparalleled, the dexterity of the animation is just jaw-dropping. What is achieved here is of an overwhelming scale; it is something sublime. But, it is mere spectacle. It is the Ozymandias statue in the desert from Shelley’s sonnet. A colossal work made out of blood, sweat and tears that demands us to look upon it in awe, to despair at its sublimity. But, it is still intact, it is still the towering statue (the statue that only takes on real meaning when it decays, when it can signify hubris). As it stands, one stares in wonder but also in confusion. It is a hell of a thing, but does it really do anything? But, who are we to question a Mad God; you can’t say Tippett didn’t warn us from the start.