The simulation broke long ago and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve asked to be let off the ride, but holy shit: I can think of no better send-off for the bugfuck crazy year that was 2019—nay, the decade—than this. CATS is the boldest cinematic misstep since SHOWGIRLS. It is XANADU for the Snapchat generation. CATS is a bewildering rollercoaster of emotions you didn’t know you had that mocks you as you try to process them. It is also by far the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year.
Any attempt to properly review this movie is pointless. Obviously it’s bad, but it is bad in ways that don’t have proper metrics yet. I’m not even sure where to begin, but I guess the fact that the cats are way more unsettling on the big screen than the trailer suggests is as good a place as any. But never mind whatever lunatic decision-making went into the horrifying character designs; not only does the CGI bulldoze the uncanny valley, it is jacked up in the way a PC game run on a low-end graphics card is. The cats have human eyes and teeth, sure, whatever, but their human features often drift from their cat bodies and vice versa. They also happen to have human hands and feet which lose their “digital fur” and even colorization at various points, so there are hands just floating in front of weird, ill-sized cat-things. Impressively, near the end, as she speaks directly into the camera for roughly five minutes, Judi Dench’s wedding ring is plainly visible. (Fun fact: as of writing this, Universal is sending theaters new copies of CATS with patched VFX.)
But the worst part by far is the raw, stunted sexual energy CATS rubs in the viewer’s face. Much ado has been made about how horny this movie is, and, while I don’t like to beat a dead horse (I might make an exception for a cat at this point), it is not without good reason: CATS may be rated PG, but it is wildly inappropriate. Honestly, you could have told me Gaspar Noé directed it. I don’t know why anyone thought the cats should all mewl anytime something surprising happens. I don’t know why everyone’s default facial expression is “about to go down on you,” including Dench, who looks like the memory of someone who, perhaps due to brain damage, is unable to disentangle the image of a grandmother and that of the Cowardly Lion. I don’t know why there is an actual shot of Ian McKellen tonguing a bowl of milk.
I can’t tell you why any of this happens, just that I was not equipped to handle it. The word “flabbergasting” shot across my mind, right about when Rebel Wilson’s cat-simulacrum went spread eagle on the floor. And, really, that’s the best word to describe this movie. “Kafkaesque” might be more appropriate actually, since seconds later she unveils a parade of child-faced roaches only to eat them. It’s every bit as messed up as it sounds, but not as bad as what happens between James Corden and a bottle of champagne. It doesn’t end there, though—oh, no. There is a moment in her song where Taylor Swift eyefucks the camera so hard that I felt what I can only describe as a wave of sad pity wash over me. Like when an ASPCA commercial comes on and you have to change the channel or leave the room. Except I couldn’t do either. In that moment, CATS made me hate sex. So, as the cats proceeded to dose each other with “catnip” and writhe about, I turned inward.
I’m eight again, and my brother can’t find his cat, Chip. As I push through the oleanders at the end of the cul-de-sac, I find her atop the retaining wall that separates our street from the next. Another cat is on top of her. I don’t know what they’re doing, but it doesn’t look like they’re fighting. There are other cats a few feet behind them, just sitting there. Waiting? They look bored, too, like they’re in line at the DMV. I tell my mom, whose reaction is to throw her coffee mug and spray them with the hose. We love cats, and I don’t know why she’s being so mean to them. The cats scream and howl. Outside the house, on the roof. They fight in the side yard. It is the worst thing I’ve ever heard. And it never stops. Not until later when something is wrong with Chip and we take her to the vet. We find out she is pregnant with kittens. We love kittens. But the kittens never come. I’m sad, confused. Disappointed.
20-something years later, I am a man in a movie theater. Again, sad, confused. Disappointed. Again I don’t know what I’m witnessing. But I understand now. I no longer love cats. I want to throw things and spray down these horrible, strutting homunculi. I want the howling to stop. I want to put an end to the sounds they make. Like those kittens, these things should not be. There is no place in this world for them.
I can see no reason for this film to exist beyond the cynical, probable truth that it is an attempt to capitalise on a successful, decades-spanning property with a built-in audience. But, even if that is true, CATS endears itself to no one. Fans of the musical don’t seem to be taking to it, even furries have distanced themselves from it. I can’t picture even the most devout of Swifties enduring this hellride either. Nothing about CATS works. Nothing makes sense. It raises questions I don’t want answers to. It is weird and gross and off-putting and it made me feel bad for Francesca Hayward and Idris Elba and never want to see either of them ever again. And yet, I am in awe. Goddamn it, I admire this movie.
The audacity it took to bring this thing into the world! The capital-B, Balls! Who knows what snowblind studio mandate handed this thing down, but props to Tom Hooper for grabbing the reins on something Baz Luhrmann wouldn’t even touch. And he went all the way with it, leaving humanity behind. We’ll never know if the people who worked on this film just never questioned what they were involved in, if no one ever told Hooper “no,” or if he simply outwilled them all. There can be no satisfactory answer as to how or why anyone would agree to spend $95 million on this piss-take on reality and release it against STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER of all things, but damn it if that isn’t exactly what happened. This movie exists. CATS exists! Hooper is nothing if not a Fitzcarraldo, an Ahab. He is Ozymandias. This is a man who would fight God.
The end result may be an audiovisual assault with the same energy as “The Nightman Cometh” on cough medicine or a My Little Pony deepfake of CLIMAX, but you know what? It is a blast. Yes, people walked out, and, yeah, I had a minor existential crisis, but, before it was over, us moviegoers who stuck it out were laughing, gasping, and cringing together. There was electricity in the air—confusing, uncomfortable electricity, but electricity nonetheless. And when the ride was finally over, the theater broke out in applause. In its own twisted way, CATS brought people together that night. We were all cats in the same back alley garbage heap. Maybe that was the intent all along.