Based on the trailer and its near-mythical status as a project Oscar-winning animator and special effects supervisor Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back) has been working on for three decades, you might have an idea of what you’re in for while watching Mad God. Scratch that notion, because this movie is far more dazzling and unsettling than you ever imagined.
Mad God is mostly stop-motion animation blended with live-action, and it plays out across intricately detailed, precisely lit sets and characters that showcase a breathtaking range of textures (clanking industrial machinery; squishy, visceral organic tissue) and proportions (from seemingly huge to the teeniest of tinies), with special effects and an eerie, carefully calibrated soundscape enhancing the action. The movie opens with a particularly threatening passage from Leviticus (“If you disobey me… your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin”) which sets the tone for the brutal, monster-populated world it soon plunges us into. If you’re looking for a lot of plot, Mad God isn’t going to deliver — it’s extremely experimental in its narrative approach, and its main focus is filling your eyeballs with gruesome, freaky, often weirdly gorgeous imagery.
That said, there is a story — one told without dialogue — to shape this visual feast. Early on, we meet the helmet-clad and gas-masked “Assassin,” and he becomes a sort of guide through Mad God’s multi-layered realm. He carries two things: a map that starts to crumble away each time he unfolds it, and a bomb; at a certain point it becomes clear he’s aiming to blast this terrible, ruined place to its foundations. As you might suspect given the incredibly hostile environment he finds himself in, the mission encounters some difficulties — and that’s when we meet some of Mad God’s other characters, including “the Surgeon” and “the Nurse,” who deal more in mutilation than medicine. Body horror rendered in gory, glistening stop-motion animation, with some surreal twists you’ll anticipate but still won’t be at all prepared for? Step right up, Mad God has things to show you. A new Assassin on his own journey is soon introduced, as is the long-fingernailed “Last Man;” he’s portrayed by Alex Cox, who’s not new to acting but is best-known for directing ‘80s cult movies Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.
And again, as gross as they can get, the visual aspects of Mad God are the main reason to immerse yourself in its grimy world — a little bit steampunk, a little bit Ray Harryhausen goes Grand Guignol, unafraid to mix a moment of sparkling neon splendor with a pile of wriggling maggots, and entirely original from top to bottom. You can see why it took Tippett 30 years to complete! Its bleak story and nearly overwhelming vibe of existential dread can also feel relentless, aside from a few pockets of dark humour, but Mad God is an undeniable artistic achievement. It’s also a solid reminder that animation is an art form unto itself, not solely a conveyance for kids’ entertainment. Let’s just say you definitely want to keep all but the most horror-seasoned kids away from this one.
Mad God is now streaming on Shudder.
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