“Mad God” is a staggering handmade hell by stop-motion and effects master Phil Tippett, who devoted thirty off-and-on years to a film that gives new and visceral meaning to the phrase “passion project.”
A character in steam-punk helmet, goggles and gas mask descends by bathyscaphe into an underworld of monsters, mazes, industrial torture and endless war, on a dogged but enigmatic mission to explore, discover or destroy some undisclosed “X” (promotional blurbs identify him/her as “the assassin”). The episodic story is a dazzling procession of set pieces à la German expressionism, steam-punk, Bosch and Geiger, film noir and “Metropolis”–like proles made of lint and dust, to name a few. With a haunting and ambient score by Dan Wool, it makes the unreasonable, resonant sense of a dream.
Tippett is part of the Spielberg-Lucas generation, changed forever in childhood after seeing the 1933 “King Kong” rereleased on TV in the mid-1950’s, and “7th Voyage of Sinbad” in 1958. For these kids (myself included), the stop-motion process pioneered by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (which involves filming hand-crafted, articulated models in minutely-changing increments, run together to simulate movement) offered an indescribable frisson of the inert and dinky made alive, and giant. Tippett calls it “sculpting in time.”
Nothing moves like stop-motion. At once life-like and artificial, full of delicate, vibrating portent, it is as unique and poetic as Martha Graham or Kabuki. Many of those ’50’s monster kids went on to create their own effects and films, but few have followed childhood enthusiasms as far or with comparable artistry as Tippett. Over his career he has won accolades and awards for scores of films and projects, including work on “Dragon Slayer,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “RoboCop,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Starship Troopers,” to name a few.
Stop motion is notoriously slow and pain-staking, and in the early 1990’s seemed to be rendered obsolete by CGI. During pre-production of Jurassic Park, Tippett saw a CGI dinosaur and famously said, “I’ve become extinct.” He became seriously ill and depressed, but fought his way back with help from Spielberg, Lucas and many others to develop a stop-motion digital sensor technology that was a critical bridge between the two techniques. While Tippett still maintains that the hand-crafted, real objects of stop motion are superior to the “3-D cartoons” of CGI, he (unlike his beloved dinosaurs) was able to learn, adapt and prevail. “Mad God” can be read as an autobiography and parable of death, resurrection and transformation.