Is Cats the first Cursed Blockbuster?
The arrival of the first trailer for Cats back in July 2019 was one of those landmark occasions in social media history. In a time where quick and constant access to conversation is paired with a media machine designed to pile misery on all sides to leave us more divided than ever, the 2 minute trailer -its first glimpses of the uncanny combination of human faces and cat bodies, its clearly rushed special effects, the enduring brown note that blarps through the voice of James Corden – it all served as a brief and perfect moment of unity. Everyone was confused, everyone was upset. Everyone was transfixed. The sight of “miniature yet huge cats with human celebrity faces and sexy breasts performing a demented dream ballet for kids” was an Event Horizon for the terminally online, something that could only begin to be processed by the immediate and fervent application of memes. Yet the majority of those who had been cursed to watch the trailer were also united in another way: they were absolutely going to watch the film no matter what.
Cats is out in cinemas now, but it appears that the only ones going to see it are those who became unnervingly compelled t0 do so back on that wild summer day. And fans of the Broadway show maybe. Also furries. Still, opening during the busy Christmas period at the same time as a Star Wars (even a terrible one) is turning out to be a bad decision by Universal, with the film flopping at the box office so far. The reviews may be even worse, with critics lining up to skewer the film as if the writer with the most venomous take will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy to die blissfully and be reborn as a person blessed to have never seen Cats. It is “an abomination“. It is “what death feels like“, but also “surprisingly boring“, a film that “will haunt viewers for generations“. And yet, could this terrible nightmare film also serve as a landmark moment in cinematic history? Is Cats in fact a trailblazer in its unifying awfulness, the first Cursed Blockbuster?
To be clear, we’re not talking about cursed in the sense that Cats has been beset by some supernatural misfortune. Although considering that is has opened at the box office at $6.5 million on a $100 million budget in the US, and was reportedly only finished 36 hours before its own premiere, can we be sure that Idris Elba didn’t disrespect an old crone on his way to the first day of shooting? Either way, this is a film that is Cursed in the modern parlance; a shocking sight that the beholder feels morbidly fascinated by. If there is a better way of describing mice with the faces of children and cockroach people dancing around the comic relief from Pitch Perfect, who then eats them before unzipping her own digital fur to reveal a garish costume and more digital fur underneath, I would like to hear it.
Having seen Cats for myself, I can confirm that the film is pretty much as the horrified reviews have described. Some aspects are being overblown maybe, it’s fun to do that when the knives are out and everyone’s on the same page. Sure it’s plotless and oversexed, but that’s par for the course for this kind of musical. It’s supposed to be glossy, shallow spectacle – The Greatest Showman had a marathon run at the box office just last year for doing a pretty similar thing – but it’s the incompetence not the incongruousness that drags the film down to dreadful. Combining Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cocaine-fulled artistic vision with director Tom Hooper’s Ambien-fulled lack of vision creates a black hole of bad taste from which nothing of value can escape.
The CGI is worse than uncanny, it’s unfinished, with some scenes having noticeably higher (though never high) quality and effects glitching in and out intermittently. Perhaps most damningly, the film doesn’t actually seem to understand its source material, leaving little surprise at the failure to bring the production’s quality from the boards to the big screen. It misuses the elements that make it such an unlikely success. The beauty of the dance is lost because the space the performers are moving in is so obviously unreal and their bodies, y’know, have “digital fur technology” all over them. The camera cuts on movement, turning the graceful into the frenetic and the frenetic into the unwatchable. Unforgivably for theatre, it breaks the magic. Cats unflinching sincerity, the freedom from irony that Theatre Kids the world over find so liberating, is punctured by the septic comedy stylings of Rebel Wilson and James Corden, who mug through self-aware schtick that has no place in a world where furry ballerinas thrust their more-naked-than-naked selves at each other.
The film also introduces a unique character in Victoria, played by the Royal Ballet’s Francesca Hayward, as an inelegant approach to audience surrogacy. For every single song Victoria first watches awestruck and then joins in excitedly like a fan who’s finally made it to New York, her only original song being a new number co-written by Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift about how beautiful it is to sit aside and watch these haunting cats do their thing. Directly following the showstopping Memory twice in the film and dropping the word ‘memory’ itself constantly, the film’s blandish play for a Best Original Song (a conventional tactic by movie adaptations of musicals) ironically serves as an “Imma Let You Finish” to one of the most beloved songs in modern musical history. Also it bears dire repeating that James Corden is in this. Hubris has never been so sluggish. Cats is terrible, make no mistake. But also, somehow, it’s also not as bad as you want it to be, somehow only adding to the film’s defiance of description.
This writer can tell you now, you really question your choices when you sit through a two-hour long bad film and find that it’s still not nearly as awful as some of the other shite you’ve made yourself watch for no reason through the years. At least it’s actually a movie. It doesn’t hate its audience, in fact it seems that everyone involved was too busy trying to stop this ship from sinking to actually consider the audience at all…the facts that most people seem to cognitively reject it off the bat means that it won’t poison any innocent minds like some movies want to do. And yes, it’s an uncomfortably horny movie about cats, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that an uncomfortably horny movie about babies is worse. You all are children, stumbling into uncertainty, your eyes finally adjusting to the light only to find that it is Hellfire that has been blinding you. I am long since burned, mottled, forged in that flame, but I welcome new allies in this war against Sin. I will not be a Gatekeeper for Shlock, as it is only with many hands that we can wrench those gates open and be free.
Which is to say, it’s fun to see people enjoying Cats on that So Bad It’s Good level on this scale. It’s a step beyond the realm of hipster “ironic” enjoyment, especially now that the film is actually out. Actually sitting through this entire film is a level of dedication that only true believers can possess. Proved as it happens, by the numerous walkouts that occurred during the screening I attended. If there is anyone responsible for the film being unleashed on the world that is aware of its qualities, one knowing acolyte hiding amidst the crew of tomb raiders that dug these haunted glyphs from the Pyramid they had presumably been buried in since the musical closed on Broadway in 2000, it is the chaotic social media manager running the Cats Twitter account. Constantly replying to anyone who mentions the film, but only following one other account (for a laser pointer account, brilliantly), the account appears to be ran by a super fan, but one who knows the film’s cultural footprint comes from its chaotic energy and meme-ability and has posted accordingly. Some of the best films of the decade have been growing their legacy through meme culture, from Carol/Call Me By Your Name gif-sets capturing their central characters’ longing to Phantom Thread reaction images sharpening context by removing it. Cats lives in that world entirely and it may be the first film released en masse in cinemas to do so, plunging into the depths of Never Logging Off like the band playing with determination aboard the sinking Titanic. Only without the dignity, obviously.
It wasn’t all walkouts when I saw the film. Sat in the row behind me were a group who were giddy with anticipation as the lights went down (“no seriously, is it just about cats??”). Throughout they laughed, they shrieked, they whispered breathlessly to each other, perhaps to clarify that they had not been lulled by Tom Hooper’s lifeless staging into some unending dream. When Judi Dench straight up looked right down the camera to tell the viewers that a cat is not a dog, they ascended to a higher plain of cackling existence. And when the credits at long last rolled, among their many questions (“what is a jellicle cat???”), the biggest one they had was when were they going to see it again. So look, Cats may be terrible, but maybe it will also save cinema.
In an uncertain world, filled with Bad News, Fake News and Stupid News, there’s something comforting in taking in information that’s only nonsensical in a harmless way, upsetting and alienating in a way that can be shared through jokes with friends. In a similar way to how people may use fetish and fantasies to explore what in real life would be dangerous, Cats serves as a fun, safe (sexy?) way of staring into the abyss; a way of reconciling with our senseless, stupid reality by laughing at a cat dressed as a male stripper who tap dances about making trains run on time. It’s useful to have a blockbuster that does this; especially when mass entertainment is designed to be safe and is only getting safer; rebooting and rejigging in real time to satisfy fans, assembled by committee, or even algorithm, choppable into chunks to be accessible to waning attention spans and wary international markets, overly canny at best, cowardly at worst, smaller in volume and bigger in budget and too big to fail.
Without getting too dramatic, the audience is having less and less say in the art they see in the micro while super studios pump out content for them to consume and dispose of in the macro. When we’re constantly having new media shoved into our faces and timelines which we’re being told we already love, it becomes more understandable why people would be so drawn to something they’re very sure that they don’t want, a discomfort that turns around into being comfortable. The appeal in many ways of the Cursed Image, after all, is that in firing off your synapses to process what the hell you’re seeing, you’re at least assured that you’re the one using your brain and that it’s in working order, that your brain sees the shit you’re seeing and finds it just as bizarre as you do; a Diagnostic Check courtesy of toilets with threatening auras, or Judi Dench launching her leg in the air in an aggressive display of a feline lack of shame. Is that too niche an appeal for Cats to be a conventional success? Probably. But based on the uproarious reaction of those sat behind me in the cinema, the film is destined for midnight movie status and it may be the biggest film to achieve that in some time.
In a way rarely accomplished even by good films the general public see these days, no one will forget the first time they looked on Tom Hooper’s works, the shite-y, and despaired. Instantly iconic in its awfulness, this film may have unlocked a new way for cinema to capture the imagination of the public, however briefly, on a scale that cult hits rarely accomplish. So while it may flop financially and while Hollywood may brush it under the carpet quickly, the memes and madness it has spawned are priceless, timeless, and for that Cats can have little a enduring legacy, as a treat.