By now, anyone who would agree to the label of “film fan” knows the legendary Phil Tippett. Perhaps the greatest visual effects artist of the last 50 years (if not ever), Tippett brought to life the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the creatures of Star Wars while also enriching many, many stellar visual feasts like RoboCop, Willow, and Starship Troopers. Heck, Starship Troopers producer Jon Davison has famously said he did that film for one reason: “I wanted to do a movie with Phil Tippett. I wanted to do a giant bug movie with Phil Tippett.”
Despite his lengthy, award-riddled career, one filmmaking feat had eluded Tippett until this year—being the writer/director of a feature film. Tippett has finally crossed that goal off the list, too, with the arrival of Mad God on the festival scene (including its North American premiere at Fantasia Fest last month).
Tippett has apparently had the visions and ideas behind Mad God for three decades. But this passion project perennially remained on the back burner as he took on all those highly, highly successful commercial projects. This creative struggle has been chronicled somewhat in two documentaries, the career-retrospective Phil Tippet—Mad Dreams and Monsters and the Mad God behind-the-scenes project Worse Than the Demon (which his daughter Maya directed for her undergrad thesis). Recently, the VFX legend told The Observer he started working on Mad God after RoboCop 2, which means this dates back to 1990. (About three minutes of work on 35 mm from then made it to 2021).
It simply took years to find the time and some crowdfunding initiatives to help foot the bills, given how painstakingly time- and effort-intensive Tippett’s preferred filmmaking styles can be. Just consider what he told Letterboxd it took to bring one scene to life:
I did a lot of talks around the San Francisco Bay. On Saturdays, I would invite the people from the schools to come in. They had no skill, per se, so it was just getting experience. I would advise them, and I would spend a certain amount of the week figuring out processes for what they could do, and then they would accomplish those tasks, but very glacially.
There’s one scene with mountains of dead soldiers, and I used thousands of little army men, and they would melt them onto these wire structures. And that took three years to complete, with six people working on Saturdays.
Ostensibly, Mad God has a plot. As per the official description:
Under a barrage of enemy fire, an intrepid special agent in a suspended container is lowered steadily into an ominous shaft. Down, down, inexorably down, through the many strata of ruin and residue bearing enigmatic witness to time’s passing. At last, the pod touches down on terra firma, and its occupant emerges, map in hand and mission in mind. The surrounding landscape is a broken place of corruption and decay, of casual horror and degradation. Our hero will not be deterred, though the path ahead holds only more horrors, so many to behold…
Yeah, that provides an accurate sense of how clear, easy-to-follow, and traditional the plot of Mad God proves to be. Dialogue is equally minimal.
Instead, you watch this film to luxuriate in the exquisite grotesqueness Tippett dreams up and executes through a barrage of old-school filmmaking techniques: mixed media, stop-motion animation, modeling, silhouettes, and puppets—you name it. The sound design includes squishy noises as a sinister surgeon digs into intestines, and the cries of a genuine infant give voice to an alien baby in distress. Each subtle creek of our adventurer’s leather gloves and every measured breath through their gas mask sticks with you—the sound design equivalent of an earworm, I suppose. And sitting through this film on your couch (or in your theater seat for some lucky few) is like being guided through a gallery of lavish kinetic art pieces. The zoomed-out environments themselves are wallpaper-worthy whether Tippet has created a war-torn landscape midstorm, a speeding-by universe, or a room full of giants strapped to electric chairs being zapped to the point of soiling themselves incessantly. That last sequence is truly gross if you stop and think about it, but the sound design and visuals are stunning in the moment.
Our hero has set out to save mummy-like drones, and this being a Phil Tippett project, they meet all manner of extravagant subterranean creatures. Early on, the adventurer encounters something I could best describe as a whale crossed with a dinosaur covered in boils and sores. Later, there are trippy polka-dot arachnids you might find in a Guillermo del Toro version of Alice in Wonderland. Some kind of octopus-ish spirit creature has a hint of Raiden from Mortal Kombat to it as it demands to be handed an alien infant. “It’s a reflection of the world I live in and the craziness of it,” Tippett said of his visions in the documentary Mad Dreams and Monsters. “But I have to find some kind of expression to make sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me.”
Mad God won’t be a story you remember as fondly as Luke and Vader, but its sensory gifts will stay with any Tippett admirer just as long. There’s a reason this film took home two Fantasia Fest audience awards, one for Best Animation and another for Most Groundbreaking Film. Just remember that Fantasia Fest is a heavy, heavy genre festival with an audience who knows that—adjust your expectations accordingly and steer any kids toward something by Aardman Animations (Farmegeddon, Wallace & Gromit) instead if they’re itching for a stop-motion adventure.
Mad God continues to play the festival circuit, including hosting its upcoming US premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. The most up-to-date screening information can be found on the film’s website, which also offers VOD options.
Listing image by Fantasia Fest / Tippett Studios