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We Need More Movies As Gross As Mad God

This article contains spoilers for Mad God, though, in our estimation, Mad God is not really spoil-able.

Mad God is a completely singular vision. The sci-fi horror film, released earlier this year, is the product of 30 years of work, directed by Phil Tippett during breaks from his primary career as one of Hollywood's preeminent experts in stop-motion animation. If you know Tippett's name, it's likely due to his work on iconic films like RoboCop and Jurassic Park (on which he served as "Dinosaur Supervisor"). Over the decades, though, Tippett has been working away, on his own terms and on his own time, on a movie that would never get financed through Hollywood's traditional channels.

In part, that's because Mad God, in Tippett's own words, is more of a "collage" than a traditional narrative. It follows a character called the Assassin — faceless in a black helmet, gas mask, and steampunk goggles— as he descends into an industrial hell world where most creatures we see are introduced only to be reduced to pulp by other, larger creatures. Zombie-like bipeds approach a hole in the ground, peer into it as flames belch upward, and are reduced instantly to charred husks. Elsewhere, similar ghouls rake the dusty earth before being flattened by a steamroller, also operated by zombies. Later, a dinosaur-like creature, covered in massive breast- and testicle-like hanging pustules, approaches one of the zombies and tramples it into jelly.

Eventually, the Assassin is ambushed by an insectoid creature with knives for teeth. When we see him next, he is on an operating table, as a surgeon and nurse leer at him, their surgical masks covered in blood. The operating room is one among many, which extend like prison cells in a dioramic shot of the structure. Soon, a panel is hewn from the Assassin's stomach, allowing the bespectacled surgeon to pull coins, jewelry, and what look like redacted documents and soggy books from the Assassin's torso, as a repetitive springy noise sounds, over and over, in the background. Having cleared these obstructions, with latex gloves covered in thick red blood, the surgeon produces a black, fuzzy, worm-like infant, slick with fluid, from within. It is the shape of a tadpole, with cyst-like plates extending along its spine.

The screaming infant is wrapped in a pink blanket and given to a nurse, who hurries it down a decrepit concrete hallway, where the walls are covered in dark stains and black wires hang from the ceiling. Meanwhile, the surgeon lifts a red lever, and mechanical instruments spring to hornet-like life, burrowing a wet hole in the Assassin's skull. The nurse, eventually, reaches the end of the hallway, where a door the size of a wall opens up, to reveal a wraith in a plague mask. She places the child in its spindly fingers.

Every inch of Mad God's world is covered in a layer of soot and grime, bile and blood. Though no words are spoken across its 85 minute runtime, through sheer form and production design and movement it easily functions as an anti-capitalist critique. The world on display is impressive, with imposing machinery and obelisk-like buildings. But, within it, all we see occur is violence. The violence is productive, to be sure. Shortly after it is pulled from the Assassin's abdomen, the strange infant is put into a press and flattened into goo. The goo, thick and caramel-like, flows into tubes, then trickles into a spiky metal orb, which lights up, then produces a clear liquid which trickles into a mold, where it is formed into the shape of a gold bar. This bar is fetched by the wraith's boil-covered assistant, who uses a pestle and mortar to grind into a heaping pile of dust. The wraith takes the pile and throws it into a fire, causing a hologram to appear. Then we transition away from them. What did the infant's death accomplish? It's hard to know for sure.

But, Mad God is most damning in its mere existence. It is the kind of project, Tippett has said, that he knew would never be made in the Hollywood system. It was too abstract in its storytelling, too bleak in its outlook, too viscerally disgusting in its visuals. That’s why it should have been made.

James Gray, director of The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, recently argued that film studios should be willing to lose money, for a few years at least, on art film divisions as an investment in the culture of moviegoing.

"I think the movie business made a critical mistake… to think of it as, 'This film did not make a ton of money, thus we don't make that film. This film will make a ton of money, thus we make that one.' A very strict balance sheet equation," Gray said. "Why is that a mistake? You'd think, 'That's a no-brainer!'… [But] when you make movies that only make a ton of money, and they're only one kind of movie, you begin to get a large segment of the population out of the habit of going to the movies. And then you begin to eliminate the importance of movies culturally."

Mad God is not, at this point, the kind of movie that studios are interested in making. But, if the studios want to invest in the culture of moviegoing, it is exactly the kind of movie they should be financing.

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