My God, It’s Full of Stars

Transcending Hell in Phil Tippett’s Mad God

Mad God (2021) | Shudder

The assassin glances over at the birdcage swinging from the roof of the pod. The bird died long ago, its bleached beak a stark yawn, the proverbial canary dead in the line of duty. The assassin turns back to their task, adjusting dials as the pod descends past layers of history and the detritus of war, deeper into the pit. The pod shakes on the end of its chain as it drops. It’s a plumb line, and the assassin is going to measure the depravity of the uttermost ends of the earth. Hope can’t be abandoned, because hope doesn’t exist here.

Welcome to hell. Now let’s go deeper.

Mad God is a stop-motion nightmare, an imparting of forbidden knowledge that warps the notion of hope completely out of existence. The film reads like a Boschian painting, a voyeur’s dream, and a dire warning all at once. Each frame is an image of some new and devouring monster, none of them alike. The creatures that populate its scenes lunge out of their surroundings as though they’re trying to escape the camera frames pinning them to the screen. They’re trapped in place by the very medium that gives them motion. Stop-motion makes the fantasy of film into a meta-commentary on the nature of film itself, a medium that takes still photos and gives them breath through a trick of the light. Stop-motion calls attention to the trick as it memorializes each moment that its models were motionless, translating those moments into an illusion of life.

The film’s grotesquerie sickens, populated as it is by creatures made only of teeth, eyes, and muscles; monsters literally and figuratively naked in their monstrosity. Phil Tippett’s creatures are mostly unclothed, and shameless in their nakedness. They commit acts of mindless violence—stomping, crushing, torturing, killing, devouring—with no hesitation and no qualms. For these creatures, existence is suffering. It is the only truth of their world. They were made to suffer and sin only, within the movie and without.

The magic of Mad God is in its ability to communicate what feels like both obvious and forbidden knowledge. The film is exquisitely brutal, made doubly horrifying because someone had to conceive of it first, then commit it to film in one of the most time-consuming and exacting versions of the medium. The brutality is Biblical in scale and baroque in execution. Every inch of every frame bursts with the detritus of war and industry. Pipes ooze tainted liquid and the ground is coated in grime. The landscapes are piled high with shattered buildings, with used rockets and abandoned briefcases stuffed with explosives, a testament to the business of violence that is this world’s only currency. The film opens with a passage promising vengeance for sin: “I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it” (Leviticus 26:32, NRSV). The land of Mad God has been devastated by the doings of its own inhabitants. Their evil is taken for granted: the baseline of their existence, and a trap from which they cannot escape. We, on the other side of the screen, feel it keenly, because we know about the possibility for hope—which is to say, we can imagine a world that they cannot.

The assassin who serves as our entry into Phil Tippett’s world is on a mission. They carry a briefcase and a crumbling map; they move smoothly and silently through the hell-world they’re dropped into. As they trace the path laid out on their map, they pass vignette upon vignette of torture and abject suffering. We never see the assassin’s face; we’re kept at a remove from their personhood by a gas mask and a pair of goggles. The assassin’s impassive affect leaves them just as alien as the monsters they encounter. The assassin isn’t a part of this world, nor are they beholden to its creatures. This isn’t a mission of mercy. The assassin never helps the people they encounter; when confronted by monsters, they run away. They never display emotion. The mission is the entire point of their existence.

The assassin’s cold affect brings to mind the humans at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick flings his dispassionate characters toward the stars and beyond, while Tippett sends his deep into the bowels of the earth, but the journeys that sketch out the plot of each film are the same. We’re introduced to both worlds through extended, silent prologues that demonstrate just how hard it is to scratch out an existence in a cold and uncaring wilderness. Architecture gives humankind its meaning in each film: the spark of intelligence is bestowed on the apes in 2001 by a monolith pointing toward the sky, while the downfall of humankind in Mad God is represented by thunderclouds boiling down to blot out the shape of the Tower of Babel. 

The inciting events in each movie bend the course of human history. They also precipitate terrible violence. Kubrick’s apes, having touched the monolith, murder another tribe for the rights to a waterhole, and the right to evolve into humanity. Post-Babel, Tippett’s monsters murder because they don’t know how to do anything else. Kubrick’s men search outward for the source of their divinely inspired knowledge, not knowing that their goal is to evolve beyond their origins. Tippett’s assassins dive deep within to put a stop to their nihilistic existence, hoping to kick-start something new. The means are different, but the ends are the same: a transformation into something that might transcend the human experience entirely.

The humans in 2001 are driven by their quest for knowledge, goaded on by a higher power that they cannot understand, until their search consumes them. Dave Bowman is eaten by a wormhole. He comes out the other side reborn, more a child of the stars than of the humanity that produced him, inhuman and unfeeling. The monsters of Mad God are devourers with mouths full of obscene teeth, creatures whose only purpose is to consume or be consumed.

Mad God leans on Biblical ideas to drive home its images of hell. Its prologue, quoting Leviticus, is a promise of retribution for sin. Tippett ties his images directly back to the original sin: the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The tree’s fruit had been forbidden by God, yet eaten by humankind’s own free will. Good fruit filled the garden elsewhere, but the tree allows for the possibility to choose other knowledge over blissful ignorance. The knowledge is illicit, and its side effects are the loss of innocence and an existence of labor. In Genesis, the man and the woman who eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge become aware first of their nakedness, and they are ashamed. They’re cast out from the garden, and their lives are made difficult: hard work sweating in the fields, and hard work in the agony of childbirth. Human history bears witness to this origin story. Things fall apart. It’s easier to eat than it is to produce something worth being eaten.

Tippett implicates his own audience in the monstrosity he shows onscreen. The monsters act of their own free will, and we keep watching, fascinated, as the monsters destroy each other. None of the creatures in Mad God weigh the morality of their actions. They’re there to kill and devour, or be killed and devoured. Murder isn’t easy work—and we feel the weight of that labor in every smooth frame of the film, the weight of the models taking on the hard labor of the filmmakers behind the camera.

Mad God communicates the hopeless warp and weft of its world with no dialogue at all. The environment drips and crackles and gurgles, but no one speaks. The assassin is silent; the man who sent the assassin on their lonely mission only grunts to himself as he formulates his plans. The monsters groan and shriek, inarticulate in their rage. The only other form of communication is the grating wail of a desperately hungry baby.

Stop-motion animation has a heft to it. Tippett’s monsters heave when they move, their real-world bulk believable under the scrutiny of the camera. It’s possible to forget that the work is stop-motion, however; the assassin moves their hands and feet fluidly, their limbs animated by a master of the form. Actual human beings make appearances from time to time—the man who sent the assassin is played by cult movie-maker Alex Cox, and human surgeons make a bloody performance out of a hapless victim in the operating theater. These human performances are difficult to separate from the models that play the assassins and the monsters, a testament to the skill in the animation. 

Mad God is not technical achievement just for technical achievement’s sake, however. The story cannot be divorced from the medium. Tippett’s point is that existence built on a foundation of consumption is suffering. The effort made to bring this particular image of existence was the worst suffering of all. Mad God would simply be impossible to create through live action, or through hand-drawn animation; it must be the summed-up result of sculpture and photography and sound design, the tortured result of decades’ worth of work, and the collective effort of dozens of animators.

The same could be said of the work attributed to Hieronymous Bosch—like Tippett, a master of his own art form, and a discomforting illustrator of the consequences of consumption and sin. Mad God could be considered an adaptation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights triptych. Garden, like Mad God, depicts the progression of human history in abstracted-yet-literal form. Its left panel shows Adam and Eve happy in the garden and in communion with a youthful version of God. Its right panel depicts the fires of Hell, countless human beings being forced into fire pits and eaten by demons. The center is populated with images of human lives on earth in tableau. People cavort with each other, consort with giant wild birds, and everywhere they are surrounded by massive images of fruit—strawberries, cherries, even a pineapple. The central tableau could be considered either a paradise or a condemnation, depending on the order in which the other two panels are read. Either these people are careless because they are free, or they are going to Hell because of their carelessness. The painting is ambiguous.

Mad God quotes Bosch repeatedly, though Tippett forgoes any ambiguity. The film owes the painter much of its aesthetic, lit as it is in the primary colors Bosch would have used on his panels: reds, blacks, and blues, each shade intense in its simplicity. A floating witch-doctor shape, shrouded in bones and misty robes, haunts the back half of the film. Its beaked mask brings to mind the birds in Bosch’s garden. Most scenes are monochromatic, allowing the eye to rest on the complexity of the setting without being overwhelmed by a riot of color. The settings are baroque. Pipes wind from one corner to another; mounds of trash hulk across the background, threatening to topple over onto the assassin. The assassin’s path winds always downward through Rube Goldberg images of torment. We can trace their path through the machinery, but the machinery remains impenetrable until we’ve seen it all in full.

The background action, too, is drawn straight from Bosch. One detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights is a figure named the Prince of Hell, a bird-headed creature seated on a throne, wearing a cauldron for a crown. The bird devours a naked human form, and simultaneously defecates another human into a pit below its throne. In Mad God, the assassin passes a row of giants being electrocuted endlessly in a massive blue cavern. The giants’ excrement falls down through their chairs—their thrones—into an intricate system of pipes, where it is consumed by other monsters, then stamped out in molds into little faceless people, who must labor endlessly in their own version of hell for another series of monstrous masters.

Tippett, like Bosch, presents a variety of views on the way that evil consumes. There’s literal eating, of course, but some of the consumption is existential, if no less awful. The featureless shit-people are mass produced only to man the factories that stamp out other products. These factory workers function as “consumables,” the replaceable parts of industrial machinery that are used to manufacture something else. Many of these consumables, like O-rings and ball bearings, wear out quickly, and get replaced just as quickly as they die. The shit-people’s existence is consumed by their work. They cast gigantic black ingots in the shape of dominoes, which they stack in orderly rows. The purpose of the work is unclear; what’s important is that, from the moment they’re created to the moment they’re destroyed, the shit-people are forced to work. Their lives are over when they are literally eaten by something else—consumed again. They’re made casualties of the machinery they operate, crushed by trains and flying debris. The shit-people don’t eat. And because they don’t eat, they alone appear innocent; small humanoid figures tossed about by the whims of their overseers, or else cut down unfeeling by the machinery in which they live and operate.

It’s worth noting that food makes appearances in 2001, but it only exists as an incidental idea necessary to drive the plot forward. Food is fuel that keeps apes and astronauts alive, but is nothing much else to be excited about: protein in the form of raw meat for the apes, shapeless mush in vegetable colors for the astronauts. These men have no time to be interested in food; their job is their mission. Ditto the assassin: they never eat, and we never see their face, shrouded as it is by their featureless gas mask. Food for the assassin is less than an afterthought.

Tippett’s references to Bosch and to Kubrick might be overt, but they’re never tossed off. The empty nihilism of Mad God is not empty for emptiness’s sake. Kubrick’s film treats progress as an inexorable force—one that has no morality, but turns out for humankind’s benefit all the same. Tippett is far more pessimistic, but he seems to be a realist about unchecked forces and their capacity for entropy. The black ingots cast by Tippett’s shit-people, when viewed from the right angle, are identical to the rectangular monoliths of 2001. Progress for progress’s own sake engenders the treatment of people as grist for the mill, consumables that can be thrown away because their sacrifice enables further progress, until eventually all of humanity becomes expendable cogs in the machine. Original sin is an act of consumption, of converting others into nothing more than tools.

The assassin can’t escape this fate. Like the shit-people, and like every other sorry monster they find on their journey through hell, the assassin is a tool for someone else’s purpose. They won’t make it out alive, either. They’re ripped apart, emptied of everything, then transformed into something precious: first a screaming bundle of a baby, then a bar of precious metal, then gold dust. The building blocks of life, or wealth. The birdlike witch-doctor hurls the gold dust into a yawning void, and the flecks shimmer like nascent stars. We wait, poised on the brink of eternity. Maybe this apocalypse will engender a new beginning, one where people don’t need to be consumed. The possibility for new life, in a garden of endless death. What is hope made for, if not for this?