That Sharknado is a hit and Cats is a flop is a true indicator of how misaligned our cultural priorities are. The fake bad movie is big business, while the real bad movie – the earnestly bad movie – has become a punchline. Cats deserves more.
(Before we go any farther, yes, I am aware success is measured quite differently for a SyFy Original versus big budget Oscar bait. I really just need you guys to roll with my rhetoric a little bit this year.)
The legend of Cats preceded it, and all of my friends saw the movie and returned almost hyperventilating with laughter. Ironic Cats stuff started with the release of the first trailer but exploded after the first screening. More people seem to be tweeting and memeing about Cats than are seeing it, though, and so Cats has become something that people want to talk about and laugh about but not necessarily see.
I have seen it and I will tell you this: I am glad I did. And while it is a terrible, awful, miserable movie it is, in many ways, preferable to some of the perfectly fine big budget movies I saw this year. I will take the sheer insanity of Cats over the inanity of a Hobbs and Shaw, for instance. Hell, I’m more likely to see Cats in theaters again before I see Rise of Skywalker in theaters again.
This isn’t a joke or a hot take or some other contrarian nonsense. For me Cats is one of those Holy Grail movies, the kind you wait around for and it can take years, if not decades, for one to materialize. They’re not the usual kind of bad big budget films, which are traditionally tedious and narratively incoherent and willing to exchange character for spectacle, and which have zero vision behind them, only the demands of a faceless mass of stockholders. Basic bad big budget movies are usually boring in all the wrong ways, and you walk out feeling like nobody involved actually cared about anything beyond the paycheck and securing a job on the sequel.
But a movie like Cats is different. There’s a vision behind this film. Tom Hooper, the director, really was giving this movie his all. He put his soul into this, and so did every actor who has been transformed into Moreauvian monstrosities. I understand Hooper didn’t use mocap on this film, and so the FX artists had to likely work harder than they ever have before. The effort is dripping off the screen, and that is what makes Cats so exquisite.
See, a truly delectable bad movie is not trying to be bad. It’s not half-assing it. It is absolutely earnest; everyone involved thought they were doing something special. And they were, just not in the ways they thought. A truly delectable bad movie is made up of a thousand personal, artistic decisions – every one of them bad. This is what makes a movie like Cats so special, that it is a series of terrible choices carried out with the full weight and power of a major Hollywood studio.
Remember Axe Cop? It was the comic-turned-TV show where a 5 year old dictated stories to his 29 year artist brothers, who brought them to life to the best of his abilities. It was magic because there was an innocence to every weird-ass choice the 5 year old made. What does something look like when it is freed from the constraints of taste, sense, decency, narrative structure, cultural norms or anything else that might limit the unruly vision of someone who simply doesn’t know any better? It looks awesome. It looks like…
Making a movie of Cats was always a bad idea. The original Andrew Lloyd Webber show has a couple of bangers, one absolute all-time stone-cold classic, but is otherwise kind of weird and rambling and unfocused. Based on TS Eliot poems about cats, the Broadway show of Cats went on to be, for a while, the longest running show on Broadway. It wasn’t because it was any good, but maybe for precisely the fact that it wasn’t any good – it was just middling and mediocre and inoffensive and disconnected enough to appeal to the throngs of cargo shorted families traipsing through Times Square, eyes bugging at the billboards and fanny packs vulnerable to nimble-fingered pickpockets. Part of visiting New York City was having that Broadway experience and Cats – now and forever! – offered the safe, middle of the road spectacle that nobody quite liked. It didn’t have the gloominess of Les Mis or the sexual power of Phantom (although it has sexual power out the wazoo, but a sort of weird unrealized sexual power that was omnipresent in the 70s. More on that later), and so it was mostly safe.
But the show itself isn’t that great, and it’s lacking a narrative, and also the premise is super weird. All of these things might have been red flags when it came to adapting the show to the big screen, but not for Hooper. This is what makes Cats a great bad movie – its very existence is a bad idea. It is, as they say in the courts, the fruit of the poisoned tree. Nobody could have made a good straight-ahead adaptation of Cats, it was doomed from the start.
I think that’s a vital component of a truly great bad movie – it needs to be a terrible idea from the start. A movie that is poorly executed but that has a kernel of a good concept is simply frustrating. This is why I can’t get with Jupiter Ascending, a movie that has within it the seeds of an actually good film. But it has to be more than a bad idea, otherwise the deluge of intentionally shitty movies like Velocipastor would be good, as opposed to the Spencer’s Gifts novelty t-shirts of cinema. No, a bad idea must be married to earnest, non-ironic execution.
We usually see this in lower budget filmmakers. The reigning king of this world is Neil Breen, who makes batshit crazy, exceptionally terrible films all of which have a burning message to deliver. Breen is saying something with his movies, and while he’s definitely making them to massage his own ego (as evidenced by the way he keeps casting himself as a sexy, tough romantic lead despite looking like Garry Shandling’s failed clone), he’s also making them to talk about his political and spiritual beliefs.
This is outsider art, and it’s some of the best art ever made. Going back to the Axe Cop thing, outsider art is terrific because it’s someone bringing a totally non-educated (I don’t mean ignorant, I just mean not formally trained) perspective to a medium that often is constrained by rules, history and concepts of what is good or bad art. These people bring a personal viewpoint that is unhindered by anything ‘correct,’ and as a result they simply explode the medium itself, forcing us to look at things from angles we have never seen before because we all thought you weren’t supposed to look at them from those angles. Honestly, this is the holiest kind of art, because it removes all barriers between us and pure creativity. Listen to Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, look at the paintings of Maud Lewis or the sculpture of Judith Scott, look at the astounding ouvre of Henry Darger and you’ll get chills because these works are so pure.
It’s a little different with the movies, of course. There’s always something much sillier in outsider movies; just look at the cult of mockery that has sprung up around Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. I’m uncomfortable with some of this stuff, largely because it’s ironic in nature and I’ve developed an irony intolerance (like lactose I can have it in small doses). Still, I dare you to watch Fateful Findings, Neil Breen’s masterpiece, and not laugh. I mean, it’s ridiculous. But it’s also amazing, a transmission from an alternate universe with different laws of physics.
But Cats isn’t outsider cinema. It’s even rarer than that: it’s enormously terrible, supremely visionary insider cinema. We use the word visionary a lot these days, but I’d like to use it here stripped of judgment. Visionary doesn’t mean great or brilliant, simply that the filmmaker has a vision, no matter how fucked up, weird or perverted that vision is.
Outsider cinema happens at the lower budget ranges because there are fewer checks and balances down there; Neil Breen raises the cash for his projects however he does (I have heard he does real estate in Las Vegas?) and he puts on film what’s in his head. But at the big budget range everything usually gets flattened out; even the truly brilliant filmmakers have a hard time getting their uncorrupted vision on screens when the budget extends into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is what makes Cats a Holy Grail movie; every check and balance in the usually conservative studio system had to fail, and at a certain point the studio bosses had to look at the monstrosity they had birthed and throw up their hands and agree to release it into the world. The fact that this movie has been in theaters at all is a testament to a systemic failure that reflects the nature of the current geopolitical situation – it makes us realize there are no adults in charge. That it was released unfinished is the ultimate Trumpian detail.
Anyway, Cats is breathtaking in its badness, and that badness is underscored all the more by the larger technical proficiency on display. Hooper’s last musical, Les Miserables, was actually a worse film – it’s almost unwatchable – but it falls into that frustrating category. The show is a classic, and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been adapted well. Hooper, bizarrely, chose to have his cast do all the songs live on set, as opposed to recorded in a studio, and so the soaring and majestic numbers are reduced to the quality of bad karaoke. There’s no fun to be had in watching Hooper ruin a good thing.
But this time he hired people who can, by and large, sing, and he recorded them in a studio. What’s more, there’s some good dancing in the film! Everybody’s laughing about Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat online, but that tap number is pretty good (if shot terribly – don’t do a zillion cuts in a tap number; the magic of tap is watching the seeming effortlessness of the dance in a full body shot. Cutting to the feet and the face ruins it). I mean, I’m a sucker for a tap number and we never get those anymore, but I think it’s pretty good even beyond my biases.
And it’s against this backdrop of reasonable talent that every other terrible decision is transposed. Large portions of the film are shot like a horror movie, and that horror aesthetic extends to the look of the cats. Rather than put people in leotards, as has been the stage standard for decades, Hooper put them in CGI fursuits, which look a lot like leotards. But he’s kept their human faces, and so they look like monstrosities, like some kind of Chernobyl-spawned horrors that would make otherwise Stoic Russian soldiers break down as they smash in their heads with the butts of rifles.
This might be the choice that sets the cascading tone for all else that follows. I suspect that if the cats in the movies had more feline-looking faces, if there had been prosthetics or some kind of CGI cat heads imposed on them, the badness of the rest of the film would feel less pronounced. But because they have nearly unchanged human faces the cats in this movie keep you from ever getting fully immersed in their world. They belong neither to the reality of cats nor the reality of humans, and are in fact trapped in some hideous limbo between the two.
This limbo, it should be noted, is horny. I would say that Cats, more than anything I’ve ever seen before that isn’t explicitly about the world of theater, captures the seething and disturbing sexuality that is at the core of all things theatrical. There’s something inherently sexual in people wearing skin-tight outfits and prancing about, and that’s a kind of weird sexuality that was thrown into a lot of family-oriented stuff in the 70s. There was a real boom in miming and dance as entertainments for kids in that decade, all of it involving a certain weird sexuality that probably comes from the fact that you can’t be any older than 25 and still do that stuff and look good in skin-tight outfits.
Watching Cats reminded me of all the times when I flirted with theater but was unable to surmount the strong feeling that I was entering a hormonal den of throbbing drama that was so insular as to approach being inbred. There was always a sensuality on display that belonged to people who liked their bodies much more than I ever could, and seeing the cats slithering around on screen filled me with the same weird dread that I had in those situations in my youth – not that I would be invited to the impending orgy but that rather I would be ushered out the door just before it began.
That level of horniness is weird, and rare. Cats might be the horniest major release in decades; we live in an era of desexualized blockbusters, where the biggest movies in the world feature a chaste kiss or two. People upset about LGBTQ+ representation in blockbusters have a point, but at the same time we’re seeing representations of heterosexuality with about all the fire of Lucy and Desi sleeping in separate beds. Mike and Carol Brady had more sexual fire than any Marvel Studios couple. Nobody is sexual in our blockbusters.
That horniness – both creepy and incredibly unusual – is a key element in the stew of badness that is Cats. It unsettles us the whole running time, like the human faces on the cats. Watching Dame Judi Dench lounge in a basket and lift up one leg while surrounded by slinking, sensual cat things is upsetting. The movie never allows us a moment to find equilibrium.
Which makes its ultimate banality so shocking. That a movie should include Rebel Wilson biting the heads off anthropomorphic cockroaches, should include a musical number where Jason Derulo gushes shocking white cream onto the faces of female cats, should have Sir Ian McKellan licking milk from a pan in a closet, should have Idris Elba shouting ‘Meow!’ as he explodes into glitter, and yet be so dull is almost supernatural. Part of the problem is that Hooper seems hidebound in how he stages his musical numbers; the aforementioned Skimbleshanks number is one of the few where the movie takes advantage of its scope to really break out of its mundane surroundings. And even then, they just visit a train. Still, it’s a transporting number that embraces the inherent surreality of the singing cats movie and that doesn’t feel hemmed in by immediate logic.
Nothing sums this boringness up quite like Magical Mister Mistoffelees. The song is an eternal earworm, structured to be that way by Andrew Lloyd Weber, but it becomes relentless in the movie version. What’s more the movie version removes the actual magic from the number – in the show Rum Tum Tugger is showing off Mister Mistoffelees to a disbelieving pack of cats, and the magician shows up and does a whole bunch of ‘exciting’ magic (lots of flashpots). But in the movie Mister Mistoffelees is without magic because he doesn’t believe in himself, so the number is largely made up of him failing at doing magic while the pack chants the chorus at him. It’s stagebound in all the wrong ways; when it should have been a reality-bending spectacle (even the official filmed version of the Broadway show adds Force lightning to Mister Mistoffelees’ magical moves to up the ante) but it’s really tedious.
But here’s the thing: the boringness is just another wrong choice in the series of wrong choices that makes Cats a masterfully bad movie. Sometimes I struggle with whether or not M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is really an ideal example of transcendent big screen badness because it’s so entertaining; the movie is easy to watch and is a total hoot. It is a cacophony of bad decisions, but for whatever reason those decisions tend to result in something enjoyable in a way that feels familiar.
Cats, on the other hand, feels unfamiliar and wrong from the beginning, and it never lets up. It’s a generally uncomfortable experience, and this is what makes it exciting. I feel challenged by this movie; again and again it confronts me with something that upends all of my previously held understandings of cinema, storytelling, aesthetics and even reality. It also upends my belief that such egregious restructuring of understanding should be interesting. It’s badness all the way down.
I don’t know how many more movies like Cats I’ll live to see. I’ll see many bad films in whatever years I have left, but they will be bad in the expected ways – flattened, focus-tested, aimed by alogrithm, market-driven. But how many more movies at this budget level will be movies for nobody, market-resistant, algorithm annihilating? As the studios become more and more conservative, as they become less and less adventurous, there is little room for a misstep as cataclysmic as this one. Even if the Avatar sequels are as bad as they look to be, James Cameron is a great filmmaker and a brilliant guy – they won’t be as wrongheaded in every frame as Cats is. I think that Tom Hooper’s lack of skill is what makes Cats able to be as transcendently bad as it, although honestly I would never have guessed that Hooper had this in him based on the soggy oatmeal movies he’s made before, like The King’s Speech.
Cats is an awesome miracle. It’s just that not all miracles are good.