“And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.”Leviticus 26:29 KJV
A floating ziggurat towers up into a storm cloud sky. Lightening cracks, blasting it’s pinnacle. From the sky a diving bell drops lower and lower. Sirens sound and cannon-fire rips across the screen. Inside the bell a rubber clad figure in a WWI gas mask desperately pulls levers and turns dials. From the smoothness of the motion it’s almost hard to believe that the model inside is animated, so realistically does his hands work the controls.
So begins Phil Tippett’s ‘Mad God’. A masterpiece of stop motion animation that has been over thirty years in the making. Quite frankly there is nothing else like it. Or rather there has been, the closest comparison is Richard William’s ‘The Thief and The Cobbler’. But that wonderful vision was betrayed and ultimately ruined by Disney. This one was not. To say the animation in either film is good is an understatement. They are both incredible.
In Mad God the detail of the model work, coupled with the lighting and subtlety of the motion control is particularly exquisite. A ‘simple’ walk cycle by the main character is sublimely hyper-realistic. With bulging rubber boots malformed by the weight of the foot as it crunches across a debris filled path. And that is just one little scene.
We follow the gas masked protagonist as he descends through a series of crumbling worlds that are post-everything-a-caust. Places where themes of decaying mutation and evolutionary violence abound. Dead world’s filled with fossils of our own making. Some of which are from Tippett’s earlier work. I spy ED-209 from Robocop amidst the ruins. It’s a trip that parallels Orpheus or Dante’s descent into their own respective Hell. As the figure navigates each one the map crumbles a little more..
Each one is a little more familiarly unfamiliar. A world of screaming giants strapped to electric chairs whose effluvia pours through a grate into the mouth of an even bigger beast. Who has been flayed and deconstructed, so that his organs, eyeball riddled and weeping, pump the bellowing workings of a great machine. Which in turn stamps out spindly figures, molded from dust and hair, born literally rotting to pieces into an industrial hellscape in which they are all too expendable. These figures labour to churn out metal blocks which zip through the air of this factory city. Crushing them as though they are of no consequence whatsoever.
Disney’s Fantasia this ain’t. It fact it’s a emphatic fuck you to all of that kind of schmaltzy classical Utopionist schtick. Like a Michelangelo made of plastic bags and dead seagulls, it is a parable comprised of Freudian offcuts from the grimmest of dark corners of human history. A howling glimpse of a future past that we are all complicit in. Which amidst our current pandemic and ecological collapse seems damn near prophetic.
This is reflected in the soundscape: Feet stomp. Babies scream. Bones crunch. Metal clangs. Amidst all this rotting shadow moments of poignancy do exist. One of the dust figures wants to escape and for a moment the person in the gas-mask holds out a hand.. It doesn’t end well though. There are just too many infantile heavy-footed monsters out there.
Several times the film seems to be heading towards an ending. Only to confound the viewer. One such moment takes places in a world of lost briefcases. Each one seemingly containing dynamite with a ticking clock that only requires winding. Time from this point on becomes a key theme.
This place we are journeying through is a place where time repeats itself. It slows. The hand ticks forward twice then back four time, stutters forward again then back. If mythology is set in ur-time then this one is is a rich expression of suffering time. The kind of time that happens when you break a leg or are having chemo. It drags on and all you can do is hope.
This is reflected in the scratched jerky effects of the film’s stock which turns fuzzy and static filled. Particularly as surgeon’s tear jewels out of the guts of the gasmasked hero, wrapped in gore and ichor, until they reach in to pull out the screaming spine of his or her inner child.
At this point you can make your own mind up about the direction of film. Though personally I found it rather cheering. What that says about me I don’t know exactly. I will say this was probably a sentiment not shared by my fellow cinema attendees. “What was that all about?” and “What a load of crazy shit!” Seemed to be a fairly common reaction as they staggered out of the auditorium. But then I’d shaved my ears, plucked my nose-hair and stolen a bag of donated clothes from outside a charity shop especially for this outing.
Mad God is released sometime soon hopfully. But will probably be showing at a film festival near you. Go and see it. Remember to take your kids too! They’ll love it.