In 2014, director Steven Soderbergh came up with an acid test for visual storytelling. Soderbergh stripped the film Raiders of the Lost Ark of color and replaced dialogue with an ambient soundtrack including Trent Reznor; as a result, Soderbergh’s Raiders reveals Steven Spielberg’s masterful utilization of every millimeter of the frame, guiding our eyes through an implied environment constructed of gesture and light. “I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging,” Soderbergh wrote on his blog, “how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.” (Sadly, Raiders has been removed, but the text remains.) This brings me to the movie Cats.
I’ve spent 18 months thinking about Cats on and off. It was the last movie I saw in theaters before they closed due to the pandemic, and maybe thanks to way too much time on my hands and genuine fascination with the weirdest big-budget project of all time, I believe that every film should pass a Cats test before distribution.
First, if you haven’t seen Cats, you’ve probably heard about the disasters. As the blinding trailer made the rounds, director Tom Hooper promoted the use of “digital fur technology,” which, it turns out, was far more labor-intensive than he’d estimated—he reportedly forced the VFX team to spend months of 80 to 90-hour weeks editing out buttholes, which one described to the Daily Beast as “almost slavery.” Hooper confessed to Variety that he’d wrapped the project just a day before the premiere, and days later, the studio had to send theaters a version with “improved visual effects.” Presumably, this included cleaning up Judi Dench’s exposed human hand, though this was still in the film when I saw it on January 4th. If you don’t believe me, I took a photo:
Creator Andrew Lloyd Webber called it “ridiculous,” mainly because it departed from Cats’ theatrical roots.
If you haven’t heard about Cats at all, spoiler alert: Cats is a movie with no plot. This is largely on Webber, who based the 1980 musical on T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a list of cats and their character traits. Cats follows that structure, a series of cameos with few or no particulars about cat society or the relationships between cats. This presents a fabulous opportunity for celebrity fan service, which was basically the idea of the $100 million project that stars Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, Rebel Wilson, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, and Hollywood breakout star ballerina Francesca Hayward.
Celebrities dancing in catsuits kinda makes sense so long as you ignore the setting: a Chernobyl-esque purgatory where only mutant cat people survive. They desire emancipation from… something… but we learn nothing about the extent of their presumably human subjugation. The movie hinges on the sole fact that cats are pumped about being cats: practical cats, dramatical cats, pragmatical cats, fanatical cats, oratorical cats, delphic-oracle cats, skeptical cats, etc.
Audiences and critics seemed to unanimously agree that Cats also looks like shit, or more precisely, a really bad trip. It’s impossible to suspend disbelief in the uncanny valley: attention teeters between tacked-on appendages like cat ears and cat tails and flat faces and spindly fingers. Animals of human proportions only occupy 1/100th the space of a queen-sized mattress. Actors crawl on all fours with asses high in the air. The lighting could mostly be described as “urine-soaked” when it’s not a psychedelic clash of neon pools. Cats hurls viewers into a mind-blowing violent emotional conflict between the delight of swishy arms and jetés and pirouettes, amusement in the trill of words like “Jellicle,” nausea in cockroaches with faces, fatigue of gormless dialogue, all at the same time. I can’t stop watching what’s going on here, and I want a Zyprexa.
All of this also makes for a great conversation, which an animator friend and I—who usually bond over video art inspired by obscure film and RPG references—bounced around as we swung open the theater doors. What was up with the scale when Skimbleshanks the mail train cat led a parade of rat-sized cats on a train track? Why is milk, and only milk, on tap at a bar in a human town? What animal did Judi Dench skin for that coat? Really, no cabs downtown at night? Is this their thing, recruiting new cats to introduce themselves with rehearsed songs?
“I think some of these have no answer,” my friend texted back when I sent him a list of questions. “As unnerving as it was, it was truly something I had not seen before.”
He pointed out that Cats feels like a climax of the anthropomorphic CGI that defined the late 2010s. Until Cats, CGI always upped the ante on the last physics-defying spectacle. That Cats went to hell feels era-ending.
Still, with zero investment in the cats and their tales, I wept when Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judy Dench) deemed Grizabella, the bedraggled glamour cat (Jennifer Hudson) the belle of the Jellicle Ball, thanks to her soaring delivery of the ballad “Memories.” And then I immediately stopped crying at the mystifying denouement, Grizabella flying away in a hot air balloon into the Heaviside Layer. Had I fallen for Christian propaganda, and even so, is this supposed to be a happy ending?
Back to the Cats test, zero plot and whack catsuits turn out to be a great lens for evaluating a performance’s strengths and weaknesses. Taylor Swift is still entertaining, James Cordon is still cloying, Rebel Wilson fat jokes still make me feel terrible, ballet dancer Francesca Hayward is still bedazzling, Judi Dench is still a fine actor in cat make-up. Subjected to the intense strain of this awful artifice, Shiva Baby would still make me laugh and cry. On the other hand, if saddled with the aesthetics of Cats, I bet you anything that a lot of the Avengers movies would look like a bunch of actors standing around a conference table. Cats is so haunting, so tasteless, and so destabilizing that it took me this many words to identify why I feel the way I do about Cats and why it lingered with me throughout the pandemic. We learn nothing from entertainment, but bad experiences teach us.