Film writers have a tendency to compare surrealist filmmaking to dreams. And truth be told, the impulse is understandable. Movies are arguably the medium best suited to capturing the hazy, non-linear randomness of the subconscious. And yet, while many films happily flirt with dream logic for a scene or two, very few have the audacity to dance to a free-associative rhythm for sixty-plus minutes. Luckily, audacity isn’t a problem for Mad God.
Here, traditional storytelling structure has been banished from the garden, naked and afraid, to make room for visceral visions hung together with meaning-rich sinew. Some will run screaming, I’m sure. But keep an open mind, press on, and who knows, you may emerge a convert.
Mad God is the directorial debut of living SFX legend Phil Tippett, perhaps best known to our readers for his contributions to the special effects in the original Star Wars Trilogy. Wordless, save for some garbled radio chatter at the midway point, Mad God is comprised of a series of arresting set pieces that depict a rotting wasteland defined by terrible and enrapturing visions of suffering and survival.
Truth be told, the narrative shape of Mad God only reveals itself in the aftermath. If you’ve ever kept a dream journal, you’re familiar with the process: the interpretive exercise of divining sense out of chicken scratch notes and vivid flashes of clarity. In broad strokes, Mad God follows a masked figure as they make their way through a gauntlet of rusted, decaying hellscapes. We can infer from their explosive cargo and their name (“The Assassin”) that they are here to destroy something. To say that things don’t go according to plan is underselling it — in part because “the plan” is never spelled out. Suffice to say, the gas mask-sporting Assassin is quickly swallowed, chewed up, and spat back out by the inferno; forever changed by their journey into an entity with dire cosmic consequences.
I have no doubt that my understanding of Mad God’s narrative will be different from your own. To be clear: Mad God isn’t the kind of film that you have to meet halfway because it is deficient or incomplete. Rather, your mission as a viewer is to make yourself available at this cinematic alter, pay attention, interpret, and draw your own conclusions … if you dare.
Mad God doesn’t have spoilers, so to speak. But I would be robbing you of the core experience of watching the film if I were to impart all of my thoughts on how this nightmarish tapestry hangs together.
I’ll say this much: to me, Mad God is about labor; about the ways that work and toil can be both generative and destructive.
Early in the film, we watch as expendable matchstick men are burnt up and obliterated by the machinery that bore them. Throughout the film, many of the distorted, fleshy bodies working away in Mad God’s subterranean hallways are moved by some unclear purpose. They shovel filth, pull levers, produce, devour, expend, and run themselves ragged. Why? That’s up to you. Either way, every beastie is their own kind of Sisyphus, eternally rolling a boulder up a hill. Only here Sisyphus is a dung beetle and the hill is riddled with glue traps.
Mad God’s world feels overwhelmingly callous and cruel, almost comically so. But there is one notable exception. In the film’s final stretch, we are permitted to catch our collective breath. A bloated hermit takes a moment to clean his hovel; a nick-nack-packed cave that I have to imagine bears an uncanny resemblance to Tippett Studio. Part of the hermit’s routine involves tending to a terrarium full of tiny creatures; a microcosmic world that conjures the delightful image of the filmmakers manipulating the hermit manipulating his own tiny playthings.
Mad God’s interest in the involved and often painful nature of hard work feels especially relevant when you consider the difficult circumstances in which the film — especially a film this labor-intensive — was made. Conceived after RoboCop II, the film ultimately took thirty years to complete. Even on the back burner, Mad God was Tippett’s passion project. And when he experienced the extinction of practical, handmade special effects first-hand during the making of Jurassic Park, Tippett shelved it for good … or so he thought.
Years later, during a presumably COVID-inspired cleaning spree, employees at Tippett Studio happened upon the old puppets and sets from Mad God, sparking the resurrection of a long-dead deity. Not because handcrafted SFX-driven filmmaking was making a comeback (far from it!). But because a younger generation had stars in their eyes and wanted to learn from their master, their mentor, their Mad God.
It is painfully obvious that Mad God is a labor of love. There’s that word again — labor. Then again, that collision of destruction and creation feels fitting for a film with an autopsy lab that doubles as a maternity ward. (Good news, there’s still PPE in Hell).
For all its forbidding elements, Mad God is a very special film. Passion projects rarely radiate this much care, intention, and trust. If your stomach is strong and your mind is willing, seek this gore-coated gem out. It’s the most beautiful nightmare you’ll ever have.