By Ashley Naftule
There is something about the experience of watching a bad movie that hits harder than listening to a terrible song or reading an awful novel. It’s a question of incompetency on a massive scale—a bad novel is the fault of a handful of people (author, editor, overly generous beta readers), much in the same way that a shitty album is the fault of a small group of musicians and support staff. A bad film, a godawful major motion picture, is a conspiracy to commit gross artistic negligence. It is the result of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people squandering millions and millions and millions of dollars to create an abomination. It is the failure of capitalism as sheer spectacle. Anyone who believes in the myth of the Genius Businessman (who hasn’t already been paying attention to the sack of rotten tangerines in the Oval Office setting the world on fire) only has to pop in a copy of Battlefield Earth or Catwoman to see for themselves that millionaires can be idiots too.
Watching Tom Hooper’s Cats is like stumbling upon the scene of a crime witnessed by a huge crowd of people. “Why didn’t you stop this?!” you want to shout, shaking the gobsmacked, dazed bystanders watching the $300-million victim bleed out. “Who is responsible for this atrocity?!” The actors, Universal Pictures, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the army of “digital fur” artists who spent months transforming Idris Elba and Judi Dench into living DeviantArt drawings — everyone averts their eyes. No one wants to take the blame; not even Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper, who sits rocking from side to side on a sidewalk corner, covered in blood and fur, whispering “Cockroach Rockettes was a good idea on paper, I swear” over and over again to himself.
Cats is a calamity, an act of hubris so profound and blasphemous that there’s probably a prophet in the desert somewhere gathering two of every animal (except for Jellicles) in preparation for the blowback when The Almighty gets His screener copy. It is also essential viewing, the kind of hallucinatory cinematic experience that anyone who enjoys getting a proper mind-fucking needs to see. Lovers of trash cinema like The Room and Neil Breen movies and aficionados of extreme “head” movies like Holy Mountain and Head will surely come together to hoot at this thing years from now, gathering at midnight movie screenings at any theater that hasn’t yet been swallowed up by Disney or the rising sea-levels. Like a two-headed unicorn that can suck its own glow-in-the-dark dick, Cats needs to be seen to be believed.
The plot (what little of it there is) involves a feline death cult in London. Every year (do Jellicles use the Gregorian calendar?) the Jellicles gather together and sing songs to introduce themselves to each other (even though they all already know each other) so that Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, wearing a fur coat that looks like she skinned the Cowardly Lion alive) can make “The Jellicle Choice” and choose one of them to ascend to the Heaviside Layer so they can be reborn anew. All the cats are eager to receive this honor, even though none of them (with one very obvious exception) seem to have a bad life or any real reason to want to live another cat life.
There are no stakes and no reasons at all to root for any of these cats, with the possible exception of Ian McKellen’s Gus the Theatre Cat. McKellen, ever the consummate pro, invests his shabby actor-cat with just the right amount of pathos and down-trodden dignity. But he also inspires Old Deuteronomy to spread her legs after he sings his song and gives us the sight of Dame Judi airing out her Dench trench and folks, if causing that doesn’t deny you admission to Heaven, I don’t know what will.
The film kicks off with the introduction of our point-of-view character, Victoria (played by dancer Francesca Hayward, who deserves to be cast in a movie that isn’t Cats), dumped in an alleyway in a sack. Running into the Jellicles in a graveyard, the cats unleash a torrent of musical exposition. None of it makes any damn sense: what is the difference between a Jellicle cat and a normal cat? Why do cats have three names? Who the hell is making clothes for all these cats? What kind of psychotic furrier sits around and makes fur coats for cats? Do the cats who wear clothes have more status than the other cats? Why are all these cats such dicks to each other?
To compound the baffling narrative (or lack thereof), Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper also makes the (extremely) questionable choice of saying “fuck it” to any sense of scale. Tombstones that seem to dwarf the Jellicles in one frame suddenly become waist-high in another. The world around them contracts and expands in size from moment to moment without any rhyme or reason. All the shop names and street names are cat puns like the Royal Claws Hotel, even though they live in a world where humans exist.
Perhaps most baffling of all is the presence of Elba’s Macavity, a self-styled Napoleon of crime with the power to teleport cats away. His feature is plastered on wanted posters across the city, making you wonder what the hell a cat could have done to end up on Interpol’s shit list. Macavity is the source of all the conflict in this film: he “ruined” Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella (who sings the musical’s only half-way decent song, “Memory,” in close-up with rivulets of snot rolling down her upper lip) and he has a moronic plan to kidnap all the cats so he can be the Jellicle Choice by default. While this Napoleon Dynamite of crime is set-up to be the villain of Cats, he’s the film’s secret hero and MVP. Every time an annoying cat-like James Corden’s Bustopher Jones, Rebel Wilson's Jennyanydots, or accursed railway cat Skimbleshanks shows up, Macavity swoops in and BAMF’s them out of our misery. Without Macavity, there would be a whole movie of Rebel Wilson eating chorus girl cockroaches and Skimbleshanks tap-dancing —he’s truly a hero of the people.
The beauty of Cats is that it’s such a deranged, cock-eyed film that there’s no need to worry about suspension of disbelief: there is nothing here to believe in. Certainly not in the cats themselves: Uncanny Valley nightmares of human faces and hands swimming in fur. Prowling around London, the genital-less cats emit a ridiculously horny energy like they’re all trapped in a grim adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Junk, and I Must Skeet.” Everything on-screen looks about as substantial and concrete as a video-game cutscene.
What makes Cats even more preposterous is that the music itself is even more half-assed than the half-finished visual effects on screen. Using tinny, canned keyboard music that would have sounded hoary in the ’80s, the music playing throughout the film is the least appealing element of it. Even “Memory,” the big showstopper, gets a strange mix — all but drowning out Hudson’s vocals with an EPIC SPIKE IN VOLUME.
Released the same week as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Cats initially seemed like a doomed attempt at counter-programming. But as the weeks have gone by, it seems wholly appropriate that these two films came out at the same time. Both of them are multi-million, hugely ambitious boondoggles that had to be patched afterward — Rise of Skywalker getting narrative patches with important plot details like one of the characters being Lando’s daughter or another character’s Force sensitivity being revealed after the fact in press interviews.
Cats debuted in theaters with unfinished effects. I saw one of the early prints and can attest to being thunderstruck at the sight of Dame Judi’s bare human hands (complete with a wedding ring!) appearing in most of the shots. Even with the unheard-of SFX update patched into theaters across the nation (taking a page from Kanye West, who retooled his The Life Of Pablo album with numerous updates for the first few weeks of its existence), Cats still looks like a rush job. Which it literally is: Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper was editing the film up until its release.
Much of the film passes by in a blur of poofing cat magic, catnip-fueled dance orgies, and adorable mouse children begging for their lives. By the time we get to the end, long after the Jellicle Choice has been made (with the lucky cat riding off in a hot air balloon to get swallowed up by THE SUN), we end with the most cinematic of closing numbers: a five-minute-long close-up of Old Deuteronomy gently admonishing us on the proper way to address cats. The only character to directly address the audience, she gazes at us through the screen with an almost accusatory stare, her eyes all-but-screaming: You let this happen too. You’re a witness. Help us. God, please, make this end.
Like its namesake, Cats may have died a well-deserved death at the box office but it’s far too bonkers a film to stay in the ground. Let’s look forward to its next eight lives as a cult favorite and start getting our cosplay outfits together. Who knows? Maybe at the next Cats screening, you’ll be the Jellicle Choice.