The core premise of Cats is very relatable: a collection of characters are desperate to escape the world of cats. There is a vague destination they are heading to, but there’s no real explanation or justification. The real reason is pure escape, and it’s something audiences will truly understand.
Cats is utterly bizarre from beginning to end – and not in any positive way. It begins with a cat in bag being thrown from a car by, seemingly, the last humans in existence. Genuinely, these are the only humans in the film. This cat is left alone and vulnerable in a London clearly designed for, but devoid of, humans. The reasons for this are never given, therefore I came to the only obvious conclusion that Cats takes place in a world where humans have been made almost extinct by some cat-borne plague. This would explain the opening (this car contains the last remaining humans) – and fear of plague would explain their unconextualised act of barbarism. But, you know what, I’d rather be one of the last remaining humans in this cat-plague world than a human being in the audience for the film Cats.
My own nonsense aside, perhaps the film is actually trying to push some kind of ‘a cat is for life’ message, presenting cruelty to get the viewer to empathise with the cats (later cats do sing melancholically about their abandonment). However, this is undercut by a couple of reasons:
- The cat’s life seems to only improve from this point
- Every cat in this film is a CGI monstrosity and the urge to destroy them is completely understandable
In fact, Cats is so exquisitely awful that it’s more likely to turn people off the animal for life than it is to encourage sensible cat ownership.
The nonsensical opening is really just a harbinger of what is to come. I have never seen the stage show on which the film is based – and having endured this film, I never wish to – but the limp excuse for a narrative is atrocious. Andrew Lloyd Webber, in some unparalleled fit of sadism to audiences everywhere, has turned a collection of cute poems for children, by T. S. Eliot into a nonsense narrative about a poorly defined talent contest. I will try to explain what happens in Cats, just be warned, it’s utterly nonsensical. For no apparent reason, an old cat, played by a distractingly fleshy Judi Dench (complete with HUMAN HANDS), hosts a ball in which she makes cats perform for her. For some reason, she has the ability to put cats out of their misery by allowing them to transcend the hellish world of cats into a new life. But, due to her being some kind of tyrant, she refuses to just give deserving cats what they want – they must prove themselves worthy. They must show fealty.
Our protagonist cat is as new to this world as the audience but, rather than being a sensible audience surrogate that facilitates explanation, they just go along with everything. Once again, Cats is utterly nonsensical and it knows it. It never attempts to explain itself because such a task is impossible. The whole thing is just an excuse to keep introducing different cats who uniformly sing irritating songs, for no real reason. Their identities are diverse and allude to a much wider world than is shown in the film. Quite simply, Lloyd Webber has forced an overall ‘narrative’ into a bunch of thematically linked – but narratively distinct – poems and it doesn’t work. Certain songs reference things that are at odds with the world presented and each character comes out of nowhere. It’s an excuse to have a bunch of musical numbers but it’s an infuriating excuse. It’s painfully repetitive and every time a new cat arrives you become terrified somebody will ask them who they are and that they will burst into song.
On stage, I can imagine Cats carrying some appeal. Though I don’t like the songs, I can imagine the staging, choreography and spectacle being very impressive – and transporting. Unfortunately, Cats the film doesn’t have this appeal due to a central horrible decision: the entire aesthetic. Director Tom Hooper has created a monstrosity. The whole film is overshadowed by abysmal CGI and a pervasive sense of unreality. Yes, the thing is never meant to be realistic, but Hooper has forsaken theatrics for immersion; it’s a film that commits to its cinematic world, relying completely on it, but this world is horrifying to the viewer. Rather than going for actors in costumes, going for pure animation or having it as humans, Hooper has gone for a blend of CGI and live-action that is eye-gougingly horrible. Each cat has a human face and human proportions but is covered with a computer generated fur suit. The end result is something akin to a Snapchat filter, and it’s just as uncanny. The computerised suits come across as furry prisons from which actual humans are trying to escape. You can see clothes hanging awkwardly off and human faces fighting against their computerised constraints. It looks wrong and it’s never not disturbing. It’s also woefully inconsistent. Some cats have a lot of human skin on their faces – a phrase I never wanted to write – and the cats also have creepily human hands. Some, actually, just have human hands. In one shot these hands are somewhat fur-lined and in the next, completely human. And it gets worse. The most truly horrifying sequence – and there are lot to choose from – is when Rebel Wilson rips off her fur, revealing it to be a jacket, to only expose more fur – and a dress – beneath. I audibly screamed in the cinema. It’s one thing being creeped out by the fake looking fur of these cat-human hybrids, it’s another thing when you think you’re watching one of these monstrosities rip off its own flesh.
It’s not just the cats though, everything looks fake. The backgrounds feel weightless and intangible. The overall result is that you never really believe what is on screen. This isn’t helped by the hyperactive camera that occasionally spins around so fast that it actually loses focus. Also, the film is overly populated by creepy reaction shots. The camera spends too much time right in the cats’ faces (which nobody wants to see) as they make bizarre movements and expressions. It’s obvious that the actors are so divorced from the end result and this means that they are continually having to react to things they cannot see and have no idea about. Every expression is jarring, and often creepily sexual – which segues us nicely into the weird horniness of the film. For a supposedly family friendly film, the sexual tension is turned up way too high. The lens is straight up pornographic and the actors are constantly, luridly gurning and displaying themselves. It may just be humans trying to act like cats but too often this boils down to humans on all fours crawling towards you while making weird eye contact. It’s not inherently ‘horny’ but the placement of the camera distorts everything. I don’t know why Tom Hooper thought the cats constantly needed to be locking eyes with the audience and moving towards them but it’s incredibly uncomfortable.
This is just one of many distracting elements that ruin any sense of legitimate entertainment. Once again, in the theatre, the physical spectacle could have been impressive but, on film, it doesn’t work due to decisions made. Hooper has cast a lot of dancers and the choreography is, theoretically, impressive. However, the fake looking backgrounds and the fake looking characters make everything look, well, fake. This means that even though it is actual humans achieving brilliant things, it does not look like it – so there is no visceral impact. It just looks like a bunch of fake stuff. Also, the camera work, as alluded to earlier, is so distracting and never effectively highlights what could be impressive sequences. The whole cast is, quite simply, done dirty by the filmmaking. This isn’t to say the cast is blameless, James Corden and Rebel Wilson deserve specific blame (for being awful), but direction seems to the the primary culprit. Jennifer Hudson is, perhaps, a highlight – as she is one of the few actors that can sing (an odd decision to hire so many poor singers if you are going to completely ruin the dancing) – but her part is so poorly justified by the film. She has one belter moment but it comes out of nowhere, and relies on a past emotion that the film never establishes. What should be the emotional climax is actually completely jarring.
I could keep piling on Cats for a while, but I think the point has been made. I didn’t even get round to mentioning the presence of a literal cat wizard played by Idris Elba (and the gaping plot holes and busted logic that creates), who ends the film weirdly naked and gyrating. If there wasn’t the whole horrific CGI fur-suit going on, this could have been somewhat enticing; unfortunately, it’s actually rather scarring. The bottom line is, Cats has a little too much in common with Cronenbergian body horror or hardcore pornography. For most of the film, you get the feeling you are about to watch a cat-orgy, and this is an uncomfortable feeling to sit with for the length of a film. At one point, a musical sequence involves Taylor Swift (in terrifying cat form) coming down and drugging everybody. As far as drug induced dance freak-outs go, I’d be more comfortable taking my children to Gaspar Noe’s Climax than to Tom Hooper’s Cats. I also thought, towards the end, that the film was going to end in a shunting scene straight out of Brian Yuzna’s Society. You know what, if your child isn’t ready to watch Society, they shouldn’t be watching Cats. In fact, Cats is the kind of aggressively provocative cinema even Lars Von Trier could only dream of. It’s so profoundly anti-audience, and so shamelessly awful, that – you know what – I almost respect it. I hate it. And I wish it didn’t exist but it sure is something.