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Phil Tippett’s Mad God Captures the Magic of Star Wars in One Important Way

While Mad God is darker and more violent, Phil Tippett recreates the same sense of discovery that gave vibrancy to the original Star Wars trilogy.

The following contains spoilers for Mad God, now in theaters and streaming on Shudder.

Even as animation continues to evolve from its earliest roots to more and more realistic CGI, this cinematic technique still remains one of the most vivid ways to realize fantastic places. A legend in the craft who has been animating for over 45 years, Phil Tippett has been involved with some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, from Star Wars to Jurassic Park, and after devoting over 30 years to his own passion project Mad God, he’s finally directed and released his first animated feature film. A lot has changed since he began his career working as an animator on 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but Tippett has infused Mad God with one of the most magical elements of the Star Wars universe, allowing audiences to feel they have discovered something new as fantasy becomes reality.

Overall, the differences between Star Wars and Mad God heavily outnumber their similarities. Tippett’s recent solo project is a brutal nightmare, filled with unbridled moments of violence, torture and despair. While Star Wars has always been and remains popular with all ages, Mad God is assuredly not for children and even most adults will turn away from its miasmatic overload of blood and filth. But despite all this, Tippett’s fascination with the alien and undiscovered can fully be seen in both worlds, as each spends incredible energy giving life to places that do not exist.

RELATED: REVIEW: Phil Tippett’s Mad God Embraces the Dark and Grotesque

The incredible success of Star Wars is obviously not due to one element, especially as it introduced the world to cool new technologies and powers, unforgettable characters and a saga with a scope large enough to attract a huge fan base. Yet, science fiction was certainly not a new idea in 1977, with similar genre work dating back to the invention of the art form and remaining a consistent, evolving presence throughout these decades of film and television. So what was so special about Star Wars? There’s a case to be made that it wasn’t so much what was being made, but how it was being made, as the original Star Wars trilogy consistently devotes an unprecedented amount of time building the alien landscapes to support life unrelated to its main characters.

This sense of discovery begins almost immediately in A New Hope, especially once R2-D2 and C-3P0 land on Tatooine and are captured by Jawas. Narratively, the Jawas act as a way for the droids to meet up with Luke, but George Lucas and the rest of the team treat this band of scavengers with attention most filmmakers reserve for the main plot. Audiences are allowed access to their ship and culture; they speak in their own language that goes unsubtitled, and they are later found executed by Imperial troopers, essentially giving a simple narrative element an entire story of its own. Especially as most of their lives remain unexplained, audiences feel not just witnesses to a story but actually like they are visiting an alien planet.

RELATED: Star Wars: What Happened to Anakin Skywalker’s First Lightsaber?

A little later in A New Hope, Luke and Obi-wan get to the Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, a vital location that introduces the character Han Solo and provides them all with a way to leave Tatooine and progress the plot. And while it is probably most remembered for Han’s controversial blaster shot, there’s an earlier moment in that location that is perhaps the most magical Star Wars scene in the entire series. When Luke, Obi-wan and C-3P0 arrive at the bar, there are three minutes where these protagonists are swallowed by their surroundings, becoming equals with the dozens of aliens around them.

Those that speak Basic, such as Wuher the bartender and Dr. Evazan, are given a little extra space to tell their mini-stories, but even more important are those that chatter in alien tongues, once again unsubtitled and unexplained. Luke and Obi-wan interact with those at the Cantina, as this is the moment when Chewbacca is introduced, but most of the time is merely spent watching everyone else, listening to the Cantina band, eavesdropping on mysterious conversations and attempting to answer what it would actually be like to visit a grimy bar on the Outer Rim. Aided so much by the character design, costuming, puppetry and language writing, this small, mostly incidental scene lingers on dozens of aliens that feel uniquely alive and, for those three minutes, there’s more to Star Wars than just what’s going to happen next.

RELATED: Darth Vader Was Weakest in Star Wars’ Original Trilogy

This feeling of discovery is found all throughout the original Star Wars trilogy, and as the characters and plot move from Hoth to Dagobah to Endor, there is always space given to those denizens and more and more due to the work of Phil Tippett. While he has moved between many franchises — from Jurassic Park to RoboCop to Starship Troopers — Tippett has maintained that yearning to discover the unknown, perhaps seen in Mad God more than in any other film he has worked on. There are story elements that seem to be echoes of Star Wars — a covert group attempts to infiltrate an enemy’s lair in a desperate attempt to blow it up — but overall, Mad God‘s focus on the fleeting and alien feels like a full exploration of that sensation of discovery, as though Tippett decided to turn the Star Wars Cantina scene into an entire movie but this time without any main characters.

Mad God is not an easy film to watch, as Tippett’s fascination with the violent and bizarre is more gruesome and intense than anything he’s done before, including his R-rated ventures working in the stories of Starship Troopers and RoboCop that each used extreme violence to discuss modern militarism and fascism. Yet, this dark display isn’t gratuitous but rather delivers on the ultimate promise of animation, a medium based on what can be imagined rather than what already exists, providing intimate access to the worlds of the unknown. In the same way that the Star Wars universe is teeming with life, Phil Tippett’s Mad God is an odyssey to another realm, a marvelous landscape full of alien experiences for all who are unafraid to look.

To see Phil Tippett’s dark alien world, Mad God is now on Shudder and in select theaters.

Charles is a podcaster and film writer from Massachusetts with a degree in creative writing and literature from Hampshire College. His podcast When Will It End? explores cinematic universes, as he and his cohost watch film franchises from start to finish and learn such lessons that Jaws 4 is actually pretty good. You can see his MCU rankings and general film journey by following nfrsbmschmck
on Letterboxd.

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