Beauty is found in the flame of everlasting fire. Director Phil Tippett (Star Wars, Jurassic Park) proves this in his passion project, the Shudder Original Mad God, a stop-motion horror science-fiction fantasy film 30 years in the making following a soldier known as The Assassin. In a time of war, they must go behind enemy lines armed with only a suitcase of explosives to complete their mission. Along the way, he must traverse a Hellish landscape of faceless drones, indescribable creatures, and incredible vistas of a dystopian wasteland.
“A journey beyond your wildest nightmares.”
The film is a gorgeous, practical effects masterpiece. The numerous hours spent crafting the film are ever-present in the fine details of every shot. We see it in the surface textures, the intricacies of elaborate pipes, the creatures, and even the color palette of skyline backdrops. Everything about the film is exceptional, and the craftsmanship is unmatched. There isn’t a single moment where the world's design is forced or careless.
We experience continually changing environments, transporting us to a new section of a strange and terrifying hellscape. There’s a Divine Comedy (1472) element to the film as we follow this soldier through the circles of Hell. Everything in the world is brutal and dark. The odd movements of stop-motion make all the creatures feel unnatural and monstrous. In a scene involving surgeons, their jittery movements create the scariest of monsters, even though they closely resemble humans in the film.
The effects also provide an exquisite sense of scale and depth. The film begins with The Assassin descending in a diving bell into what appears to be a bottomless chasm. It’s reminiscent of The Abyss (1989) because of the small diving bell—paired with the purple light it emits—and how deep the trench appears to be. The lighting gives way to some fantastic threatening shadows, making the darkness feel ever-present and daunting.
Despite all its beauty, the film lacks an engaging story. I never felt like I had any understanding of why the events were taking place outside. However, some details lend themselves to analysis. Such as the visual of a singular leader with disgustingly long fingernails, who is someone who doesn’t get their hands dirty, surrounded by hundreds of faceless, indistinguishable soldiers. There’s plenty to read into, but I wish more of the story were surface-level.
The film also lacks a protagonist with a strong personality. The absence of dialogue prevents any emotional investment in The Assassin, and none of what he does physically gives way to an “actions speak louder than words” approach. He’s just a vessel in this bizarre world, like Mad Max in The Road Warrior (1981) or Fury Road (2015). The world itself is the story’s central character and not The Assassin. I wanted a hero to latch onto, but I didn’t find one.
Mad God is sure to have viewers marveling at the incredible craftsmanship of the film, from important set pieces to minor details. The world-building is a sight to behold. The film is a visual feast and a waking nightmare demonstrating Tippett’s reverence for handcrafted animation.