With its barbed comments concerning various existential themes, such as the evil side of religion or the pointlessness of living, Mad God (2021) can be one perplexing movie to comprehend. In this article, I tried deciphering some of the most puzzling bits from the stop-motion horror freak show.
Here’s what you will read about below:
- The references to art, literature, and religion
- The symbolical meaning of the main characters: The Assassin, Last Man, and The Alchemist
- Analysis of the main themes covered in Mad God (2021)
Mad God (2021) Explained
The opening shot of the tower resembles the Tower of Babel
Before we descend into hell, director Phil Tippett opens with a shot of a pointed tower that accommodates an unknown figure on its top. The film later indulges in a prodigious number of theological and sociological metaphors, so the opening shot might be a nod toward the biblical Tower of Babel.
The Tower of Babel, as described in the Book of Genesis, firstly represents the vanity of a once-multilingual nation that constructed a building as high as the heavens. Interpreted as a symbol of unity and closeness to the divine dimension, the Tower of Babel was eyed by God. In the act of vengeance, God breaks one language into multiple and scatters the nation on the earth’s surface.
Using this particular reference to begin the film entitled Mad God isn’t a coincidence.
The Tower of Babel, among its many interpretations and meanings, captures God’s capricious and mean nature. Instead of praising the mortals, God smites them with anger and crushes their spirits. That behavior becomes essential in the loose narrative of Mad God (2021), where gods exhibit all kinds of sinister behaviors and seem to derive pleasure from these actions too.
Though Tippett never crystallizes one supreme being in his film, instead, he portrays a world ruled by the most hideous and sadistic gods who all keep their servants at their most frail status.
Spanned around the Tower of Babel exists a kingdom of maddened deities and vile creatures, where only one rule applies – dog eats dog. Death is a clobbering act for those who lack the savageness in their system.
Hence, on the one hand, Mad God (2021) assumes that all of the sufferings don’t predominantly come from human nature.
The Assassin’s descent into hell
Tippet’s allegories aren’t the most subtle, albeit no other tops a society baked from excrements in hellish ovens.
Yeah, talk about disgusting, right?
As The Assassin penetrates the bloodcurdling terrains and interiors, we get a good look at the whole process of creating a gullible society. That’s also where Phil Tippett packs some very solemn thoughts about human nature and references to the meaning of work and even the darker side of the Industrial Revolution.
Tippett shows a whole nation of creatures that look the same, are made from the same material (feces, yes), and whose lives are fleeting, meaningless seconds. Born to do tedious tasks, the brown matchstick-looking men can be reduced to something as meaningless as becoming fuel for a machine. It clearly portrays the labor force, coerced into work and manipulated by the governing institutions. These gangly beings demonstrate no desire to change because of suppressed feelings that keep them addled.
Such a numb society becomes susceptible to becoming inherently indifferent to the suffering that becomes part of life. And it’s hard to negate that part of mankind’s history. Humans waged horrifying wars and could inflict the most repelling forms of pain, often driven by religious fanaticism. Wars aside, hazardous labor environments were sometimes equal grim reapers. Workers died in the creation of the pyramids during the Industrial Revolution, and the pattern continues today in sweatshops or the construction sites for the world cup in Qatar.
Mad God (2021) attributes such behavioral patterns to a system that keeps any external influence at bay. One feces-made dude may have had a chance of waking up. Alas, right after noticing The Assassin, he’s turned into a bloody pulp by one of the demonic wardens – tools in the tightly-knit system that blocks eye-opening messages from the outside.
That’s where the role of The Assassin becomes pivotal. The man’s job is to detonate a bomb on the lowest level of the hellish kingdom.
References to World War I and World War II in Mad God (2021)
The introduction of The Assassin, whose appearance’s inspired by the military uniforms of soldiers from World War I and II, shows that the attempts to destroy the land of gods can be counted in thousands. The mass “grave” of identical briefcases to the one kept by The Assassin proves that Last Man (played by Alex Cox) has been trying to excavate a treasure (or simply blow up the hellish kingdom) for a very long time.
The images of war depict another ugly side of humanity. Aside from justifying cruelty through religion, Tippett shows that fanaticism can also be born out of madness.
Last Man’s army in Mad God (2021)
While unfolding the genesis of The Assassin’s mission, Phil Tippett introduces another character – a more comedic role played by real actor Alex Cox. The strange man is described in the credits as Last Man.
We’ve established that Mad God (2021) reflects on the ugly side of religion. But with Last Man’s character, Tippett portrays religion as the discombobulating mechanism orchestrated by one man who sends his followers into the center of hell in search of a treasure.
It all becomes connected, doesn’t it?
Firstly, Tippett exhibits the sinister gods and their ruthlessness inflicted upon a society they engineered. Then, he shows a character – the Last Man – who controls his little army of bemused creatures.
Dressed as soldiers – gas masks, helmets, etc. – the followers of Last Man venture into the world where only death awaits them, but that’s mainly why they’re dressed in that specific way. Throughout centuries men have been sent to senseless wars. Despite the most atrocious things happening in times of war, soldiers follow orders abjectly, regardless of the irreversible damage they do.
Now, the Last Man can also be interpreted as God himself. His followers venture into the world beneath which he might have created himself and then abandoned it. Destroying the apocalyptic kingdom leads to the beginning of the creation process – the exact scene we see unravel in the ending scene of Mad God (2021).
However, Last Man may be a spiritual leader – something of a pope. With enough power accumulated in his hands, he’s assembled an army of ardent zealots whose only objective is to blow up the world of the gods that Last Man once worshipped.
The Alchemist’s story and the act of creation
Perhaps the most perturbing part of the film is the birth of an alien-looking creature found in the guts of the tortured-to-death adventurer. A true Gigeresque nightmare, which also completes the arc of The Assassin.
Although the reasons why the nurse captures the alien baby remain opaque, such a sacrifice may hint at Phoenician or Mayan practices. In ancient times, human sacrifices were a common gift for the gods, and some were distinctively harrowing – like the followers of Moloch, a Phoenician god who only accepted children as sacrifices.
What could Phil Tippett mean through that last sequence?
Who is the Alchemist who helps the grim creature?
Well, the last act of Mad God (2021) elevates the suffering of an individual to a catalyst of a change that defines a new generation in society. Portraying this specific deity as an omen of death cements the message that eclipses the entire movie – only through pain and death does humanity find the strength to be reborn.
There could be one more angle to take into account here.
A beaky nose and the chains and ornaments carried by the dark deity could point to Thoth – an Egyptian god of wisdom, time, and knowledge. In the vicious circle of humanity eating its tail, time constitutes an unrelenting force that bows before no one. The dark deity uses the Alchemist for its secret purpose, which may hint at its cunning or deep understanding of creation.
Aside from Thoth, there’s an even more fitting reference for this deity – a plague doctor. The dark colors of the coat, the round hat, and the beaky mask were all attributes of the infamous plague doctors. One could also see the influence of Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982), which would be natural for Tippett (both he and Henson are masterminds of puppetry).
As per The Alchemist, that dude might be the nastiest creep in the entire film. He keeps two shit-shovelers for macabre hunger games and likes to tear apart a family of colorful amphibians as part of his “experiments.”
The ending of Mad God (2021)
In the final moments of Mad God (2021), the beaky-nosed creature throws the glistening dust – the essence of the sacrifice made earlier – into some kind of vortex, which commences a chain reaction. Like looking under the microscopic lens, Phil Tippett shows the crudest moments of creation – the fission of cells and the forming of new life.
Here, the story also circles back to the recurring theme of passing time. The Alchemist’s lair stores dozens of clocks, and when the new world emerges, one of the cuckoo clocks heralds its arrival. However, it also celebrates the end of the suffering as prominently emphasized in the last moments of The Assassin (the arms of the clock that wouldn’t move – a symbol of his never-ending demise).
That ending carries a more scientific meaning to the discourse that’s so heavily oscillating around religion. Not only does the creation process happen on the molecular level, but it happens in a way that the world has come into existence – The Big Bang.
Considering that final moment, Last Man’s peek at the bunker hole also ends his eager waiting for the world to end. However, what happens next remains an open book.
Paradise Lost inspiration
To say that the Bible influenced the makers of Mad God (2021) would be an understatement. However, there is one more piece of literature that had a profound impact on this animated horror – John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost, by many considered one of the biggest masterpieces of literature ever written, depicts the fall of mankind, and the war waged between Heaven and Hell. Milton’s central figures – first humans Adam and Eve – become symbols of sins, just like they were in the bible. The poet then paints a fascinating picture of the vision of the world born out of their sin, where hope’s gone. Paradise Lost seeks answers to the existential questions concerning Christian God – why he allowed Man to do wrong, or how Satan sneaked into Paradise.
While Milton oozes an aura of hopelessness for humanity, the core of his work revolves around the relationship between God and his servants – the justification of his action and the roots of their disobedience.
Phil Tippett pulls a lot of inspiration from the nightmares shown to Adam, opting for an extremely gory and nightmare-fuel kind of style. While Milton argues that the fault in Man makes him a fully conscious being, with free will to do as he pleases (without the constant supervision of God). For Tippett, this miltonesque philosophy becomes far more visceral, with more focus placed on the ruthless nature of God and how his lack of action gives creatures of all ugly kinds to wreak havoc.
Other references to art, history, and literature present in Mad God (2021)
- The Wayward Sisters from Macbeth – noticed the creatures hiding underneath the tabernacle in Last Man’s chamber? These hooded monstrosities can directly reference Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the three witches lead Macbeth to his demise. The image below shows a painting by Henry Fuseli.
- Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy included a chapter about a descent into hell and its nine circles. Notice that The Assassin also traverses the same number of “levels” until he’s captured and murdered.
- There are two references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The “shitty” society constructs the same monoliths as in Kubrick’s film. Additionally, there is a shot of planets, which is a direct homage to the same array of planets as seen in classic sci-fi.
- At some point, society from the depths of hell gathers underneath a strange collection of connected screens showing hideous frames of bloodily chapped lips and googly eyes and pumping disturbing baby sounds from the speakers. Naturally, such images bring to mind the ubiquitous presence of Big Brother from George Orwell’s Year 1984.
- Contrary to the famous painting by Peter Breughel, the Tower of Babel in Mad God (2021) appears to be finished. While Breughel’s interpretation was directly reminiscent of how the story unfolds according to the biblical version, Tippett shows a finished construction to emphasize that despite finishing the tower, society is nowhere near heaven.
- Many creatures appearing in the film suffer from body deformations, eerily similar to post-radiation effects.
- One scene finds a military man saluting a statue of a bull-looking humanoid. The scene clearly indicates the worshipping of Baphomet, an occultic deity that often appears in horror movies. On top of that, the soldier salutes in the same manner as Nazi soldiers did – a possible link to how Nazis were obsessed with occultism. This one image ties in with the themes repeatedly processed in the film – war, fanaticism, and so on.
- The visual layer of Mad God (2021) was heavily inspired by the works of painters and artists, including Zdzisław Beksiński, H.R. Geiger, and Hieronymus Bosch.
Mad God (2021) – the essence of the film
Mad God (2021) explores the most deranged visions of gods and their servants, who exist in a highly hierarchical structure, and where violence and death are often the only means of introducing rigor. Despite the loose narrative, Mad God (2021) also documents a process of creation – birthed through the suffering and sacrifice of many souls. Phil Tippett also picks a fight with religion, which becomes a tool for manipulation and fanaticism.
What were your thoughts on Mad God (2021)? Share in the comments!
Henry Fuseli – The Wayward Sisters oil on canvas painting – huntington.org
Egyptian gods – worldhistoryedu.com
The costumes of Plague Doctors – nationalgeographic.com
John Milton’s Paradise Lost themes – cliffnotes.com
Official page of Tippett studio – tippet.com