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- Reviewed from the 2021 Locarno film festival.
A title like Mad God gives a film a lot to live up to. You need something not just insane but epically, metaphysically barmy and not just angry, but hell-hath-no-fury furious. Add to that a 30 year production history which – according to writer-director and special effects genius Phil Tippett whose obsessional work this is – caused a mental breakdown, the weight of expectation might crush a lesser film. And crushing wouldn’t be an inappropriate demise given that is the fate of many of the unfortunates here. But the name is earned. It is a terrifying, disgusting, visceral, inventive, technically stunning piece of work, only partly relieved by bile black humour and the audacity of its vision.
The film opens with a quote from Leviticus, the Bible’s angriest book and a vision of post-tower of Babel strife (the episode when God invented xenophobia to stop people from ganging together and challenging his supremacy). From here we enter the forever war. A capsule like a diving bell is lowered from the sky, through the flak of artillery fire, into a pit, past huge Predator-like skulls, down, down, down – as Tom Waits might sing – into an underworld that just goes on and on. Here, the explorer emerges from his vessel, a cyberpunk gas-masked, bowler hat-wearing invader, stealthily making his way with a tattered map through an excremental landscape inspired by Pieter Brueghel, Hieronymus Bosch and the nightmare collision of every pop cultural item from the past century. Imagine Ready Player One painted by a dirty protester.
Mad God is not so much a return of the repressed as a regurgitation. Tippett has masterminded the special effects for everything from Star Wars to Starship Troopers, Robocop to Jurassic Park, winning Academy Awards along the way. It is fitting then that his film is a palimpsest of references: from Robbie the Robot to 2001 by way of Alien, Predator, Avatar, the Invisible Man… Is that the silhouette of Alfred Newman from Mad Magazine in the hotel window? It is the rag and bone shop of the fantastic imagination: as if Tippett and his collaborators came home from their day jobs as Hollywood dream merchants and made up their nightmares from the off cuts. It spews and shits, decomposes and bleeds. No movie has stunk like this since Hard to Be a God (2017). Briefly, we get a day-glo Pandora-style interlude – a momentary relief from the stain-coloured inferno – but it is an Eden fed on maggots and soon devoured.
More than simple gross-out, Tippett’s film meticulously recreates a universe of relentless cruelty and horror. There are no good guys, no sides even – our ‘hero’ swiftly becomes another victim and is replaced – and literally no dialogue. Vicious overlords speak in baby babble. Torturers dress like doctors. Kubrickian monoliths crush people in a domino rally of death. Everything is mulch: killed, crushed and disemboweled in order to create another generation to be killed, crushed and disemboweled. If George Orwell’s 1984 posited human history as a boot stamping on a man’s face, Tippett adds defecating.
And yet the film is so beautifully realized: every shot, a brutal work of art. The animation employs so many techniques, from puppetry to stop motion, live action (Repo Man director Alex Cox appears as a curly fingernailed mastermind) to digital as to present an exhaustive compendium of the art. Has there ever been such a combination of technical brilliance at the service of such a nihilistic vision? It’s like Pasolini made a Pixar movie. This is not for everybody: it relentlessly hammers home its point and even wild inventiveness can become paradoxically monotonous. But this is a work of a genuine visionary, and has all the makings of an instant cult classic.