I must stress two things. One, I am not a film critic. For a professional analysis on CATS, I would point you elsewhere, like Vulture. Two, I have not even seen CATS. So if you’re looking for a review from someone who “has actually watched it,” well, there’s the cat door. Don’t let the flap hit you on the way out.
Indeed, I only recently saw the play due to a drunken string of accidents on New Year’s Eve. On my friend’s couch, I sat transfixed watching the Magical Mr. Mistoffelees pull a rainbow ribbon from a giant cup and shoot lightning from his paws like a Sith. “He maybe should have won the contest,” my friend mutters. “Perhaps so,” I solemnly reply.
Seeing the play doesn’t mean I understand CATS, the film, any better. It lured me further from the truth if anything, and I have only the foggiest notion as to how this fever dream came into being. My personal understanding is that the Phantom of the Opera man was briefly a furry. But my lack of education on the topic won’t stop me from posting about CATS, the most important film ever made. Nor will it stop me from reviewing it because to me, CATS isn’t a movie you watch. It’s something that happens to you.
Yes, CATS has dug its retractable claws into the folds of my brain, kneaded it, and curled up to take a nap on it. I must do something with this burden, with this heaviness, as agita is the basis of all art. I must make, or be driven mad. So here is my review of CATS (2019), a film I reverse engineered in my head, the experience that closed out a decade.
A major element of the CATS film that I haven’t watched is the eldritch anatomy of the titular cats. The relationship between the real world cats we know and love and these “cats” is a troubled one, and the disconnect between them serves to generate the anxiety that will come to define both the 2010’s and this (relatively) brief viewing experience: the cats of CATS spit on God. They look at the cats of earth, genetically engineered to be found appealing to the human eye, and heartily say to them, “Fuck that. Human breasts but no nipples.”
Indeed, the thrust of CATS appears to be one in violent opposition to aesthetic hegemonies. CATS not only seeks to wreak righteous chaos on all that our eyeballs have been conditioned to find beautiful, but also actively wants to punish us for our complicity in the systems that gave rise to those conditions in the first place. “This one’s for toothy Sonic, sacrificed at the altar of your vanity,” CATS says, showing us Taylor Swift’s face superimposed onto a body we are forced to recognize as feline. “May his death howls haunt your dreams.”
CATS (accidentally) employs aesthetic terrorism to mock and make commentary on the failure of CGI, once the future of animation, to capture beauty or to hold anything resembling humanity. CATS was born in a world where CGI toils under mega companies like Disney to churn out lifeless remakes of better films. “Here is Lion King, the film you love,” Disney says, making Pumbaa’s stiff bio-realistic corpse dance in front of us. “Here it is, but now it is real! You didn’t ask for this, but here it is regardless, the fruit of our benevolence. Fifteen dollars, please.”
It is from the absolute depths of this uncanny valley that CATS emerged to laugh at us. “Behold the folly of man,” says Idris Elba, his god-like body twisted into a velvety nightmare, a “cat,” we are told. “MACAVITY!” He disappears in a glittery POOF. Where is sexy Idris Elba, the man we long to see? Oh, how we long to see him! We desperately dig through the digital fur technology in search of him, in search of anything real. “It was never real,” he cackles. “Nothing is.”
The Jellicles, a group of death cult extremists, wave Dame Judi Dench’s human hand in front of us. “Remember this?” they say. “Remember flesh? Remember warmth?” They wipe it from existence.
This cruelty answers many of the questions moviegoers have asked after hobbling out of the theater, the most prominent one being: “Why?” Why, in a world where we have more control over aesthetics than ever, in a world where any dingus with an iPhone is free to shift their face around in an app before showing it to the world, would such an expensive, star-studded project be so ugly? And not only that, but how did it achieve such a profound ugliness, such a repulsive, disgusting visual vocabulary?
“The answer is, it was an accident,” the creators of CATS, the cowards, would probably say. It’s clear that they harbored big dreams for this film, as evidenced by their scrapped awards campaign for it. But CATS, their wretched child, their detestable offspring, stronger than them, harbors no such delusions.
“My answer,” CATS says, “is pain.” CATS was born to be an act of dissent. It assumes the jagged dimensions of an object that is nearly impossible to love, because it wants to be hated. For a “safe” film carefully constructed by committees and input from audiences, hop on over to Star Wars. They’ll love you there, idiot that you are. CATS couldn’t care less what audiences want, what “fans” want, what you want.
What you want is what got us in this mess: a late capitalist nightmare world where if enough racists say they didn’t like it when the Asian lady flew a spaceship, she’ll be all but edited out in the sequel. What you want is to be spoon-fed cute baby characters so you can post cute baby GIFs of them while the three corporations that own every aspect of your pretend life suck the blood out of your veins so some dude in golf shorts can buy his third yacht. “And what do I want?” the humanoid roaches of CATS ask in unison. “Your screams.”
I love CATS. Not the film, which I haven’t seen, but CATS the event, CATS the existential horror, CATS as it exists on Twitter, where I experienced it. I love the fact that it was screened to critics with a portion of it yet to be finished, Dame Judi Dench in a green bodysuit, acting for you.
I love that I feel CATS could be expunged from the earth at any moment, that even as I type, a dedicated unit might be gearing up to destroy every last trace of it because it stumbled upon an ugly, unprofitable truth: there is no plan, no God, no truth behind the guiding principles we so stubbornly cling to when it comes to “good art” and “bad art.” There is only an article about how Jason Derulo’s bulge had to be removed from the final cut, meekly asking to be read, to no end.
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