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Cats is a movie and I must scream

Disclaimer: This article is reuploaded from my previous site.

“A play there is, my lord, some ten words long – which is as brief as I have ever known a play – but by ten words, my lord, it is too long; which makes it tedious.”

– Philostrate, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

There is a scene in the webseries If the Emperor Had a Text-to-Speech device in which the half-dead Emperor of Mankind is visited by the custodians who served him back in his prime.  To his absolute horror, the decades they have spent without his guiding presence, have driven them all stark-raving mad from loneliness and purposelessness: leading them to strip off their armour, smother themselves in body-oil, and perform what can only be described as thuggishly-trippy dance routines set to anime music while making sexual innuendos at absolutely everything.  Their Captain-General, despite being strongly implied to have had more than a few rollicking pansexual parties in earlier years, is thoroughly embarrassed at the living caricatures his men have become while the Emperor can only respond to the chaos before him with, “Is this a fever dream?  [...] Am I on drugs?”

I could not help but be reminded of this within the first three minutes of Cats.  The key difference, however, being that Text-to-Speech is an entirely fan-produced, over-the-top parody that takes even the most obscure and ridiculous bits of the Warhammer story and dials them up to eleven for the sake of affectionately lampooning the official series’ excessive and perverse fixation with machismo.

Cats is a real Hollywood film that I have paid to see with my own two eyes, that some very important men in suits paid even more money to produce that we as audiences are, apparently, supposed to take absolutely seriously.  It’s the kind of bad movie that can only come about when money collides with ignorance, arrogance, and an utter contempt for the very concept of narrative design.  Indeed, as someone who is paid to write and develop stories for a living, I find Cats deeply offensive on an existential level, not necessarily for what it is but the way in which it’s presented.  In how it takes a story that requires barely half a minute’s explanation and warps it into a yawning, eldritch wound that requires barely two hours to heal yet, somehow, feels too long by four.

The plot, such as it is, concerns the white cat Victoria (Francesca Hayward) being dumped into an alley and taken-in by the nonsensically-named Jellicle Cats; who for reasons that go unexplained gather around their elder, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who apparently possesses the ability to send the most-skilled singer of the group to, “The Heaviside Layer” where they can start a new life.  Naturally, singing ensues. Unfortunately, all efforts to hold this singing ball are repeatedly sabotaged by Macavity the Mystery Cat (Idris Elba), who uses his unexplained magical powers to teleport around the film, kidnapping the most impressive singers, so that he can be sent the Heaviside Layer with no competition.  It makes sense on paper: Character A finds themselves trapped in Situation B, are adopted by Support Cast C, who want to achieve Objective D despite the challenges presented by Antagonist E.  So, what’s the problem?

Well, frankly, all the gyrating that occurs between steps.

For a U-rated movie, the characters of Cats are sexualised to a frankly-sickening degree.  The realistic human faces surrounded by digitally-conjured feline fur, moving in rough approximations of real-life cats would be bad enough on their own, but the constant bedroom eyes and masturbatory caressing that every single member of the cast is perpetually indulging in is nothing short of cinematic torture for the eyes.  One stand-out moment, in that it is a moment that stands out because it is forever burned in my retinas and no matter how many times I close my eyes it will not go away, is when James Corden – playing what can only I assume is the Cat in the Hat demonically possessing the Fat Controller, strips off his suit (revealing that, underneath, his fur is patterned to look like a suit, so one wonders what the point of even having one was) and proceeds to touch himself and moan while sashaying around the set, singing a song about how much he wants to eat all of the food that he can steal from a bin.

Now it must be said that the songs themselves are not the problem.  While most are forgettable, some, I confess, could have been extremely catchy.  What prevents them from being so is everything surrounding them.  Even Taylor Swift, who can legitimately sing and helps start off a pretty good rendition of Macavity’s song, has her performance undercut by the fact that it’s accompanied by what I can only describe as a sexless orgy of feline frolicking.  And Idris Elba’s ass. It is impossible to put into words just how much I did not need to see Idris Elba’s digital fur-covered ass. Once you have seen Idris Elba stark naked, covered in fur, moving in such a way that I presume someone found seductive, you cannot simply unsee it. What makes it all the worse is that, when he has his big scary coat on, he’s honestly one of the better-looking characters precisely because we don’t have to see too much of his body covered in fur.  Once it comes off, though, there are no breaks on the nightmare train.

Idris Elba looks terrible.  Truly, unfathomably terrible.  By comparison his body structure is so much bigger and harder than everyone else’s but is covered in the kind of silky fine fur you’d expect to see on an entirely different kind of character.  The resulting effect makes him appear both solid and liquid at once, and it’s made all the more disturbing by how the cheap bordello lighting that perpetuates the movie seems to be constantly illuminating every twist and turn, curve and contour in his body, giving the audience an intimacy with the naked furry form of Idris Elba that they did not ask for nor consent to be subjected to.  Granted, that’s a problem everyone shares but one suspects the animators deliberately went out of their way to make Elba look especially terrible, and all I wish to know is, “Why?”  What did he do to deserve this?  Did a CGI artist’s girlfriend say that they’d dump him for Idris, and he decided to make his fur look exceptionally awful as some petty act of revenge?  Did he express the opinion that maybe this film wasn’t actually going to be a Star Wars-beater despite what the studio hoped, and they subsequently ordered that he look like a monster to put him in his place?  Was everyone involved in this production just especially incompetent?

Whatever the case, Elba tries so very hard, bless him, to make Macavity seem like a credible villain and to his credit would have been the best actor in this thing if they’d just let him keep the coat on.  As things stand, what should be a most triumphant villain song turns into a harrowing display of furry sexuality that no one was asking for. Our only respite from this horror is the knowledge that even this grotesque display pales in comparison to the earlier eldritch ordeal in which Rebel Wilson, in full feline attire, terrorises her mouse servants, unleashes a platoon of human-faced cockroaches, and devours them whole while stripping off her fur to reveal that, beneath it, she wears an 80s disco number over a second layer of fur — all the while consuming the living, dancing, singing cockroaches that do not attempt to hide nor run nor scream in terror at the unending appetite of their mistress, for they know there is no hope.  Not since the intrusive medical and psychological horror of Get Out have I found it so difficult to look at a screen, but for all the wrong reasons.

It cannot be said that Cats is a good piece of cinema.  It cannot even be said that it is an entertaining piece of cinema.  Perhaps, therefore, we might consider it to be a surrealist, Dadaist spectacle of anti-cinema.  A rejection of all previously-held ideas about artistic value.  A statement that any culture like humanity, that could create such horrors as the First World War, the British Conservative Party, or even Cats itself is inherently, irredeemably meaningless and that the only “art” that can truly reflect it is a disturbing, directionless, and thoroughly delusional tempest of nightmares and revulsion.  Perhaps so, yet that would not explain why the film makes token attempts at a three-act structure, at planting and payoff, at a conclusion that, in some earlier draft, might have helped to convey some deeper message – nor why the anarcho-capitalist cult of Hollywood would have paid actual money to produce it.  Though it’s no secret that they hold the masses in absolute contempt, I hadn’t thought them so cynical that they would willingly take a torch to everything their industry is built-on and expect us not to notice. Or, perhaps, it’s just a really, uniquely, and bizarrely terrible movie – and, perhaps, the only way to truly describe such things is with the words of critic Kyle Kallgren: “This cannot be Dada.  It’s too normal to be Dada.  It’s too shit to be anything else.”

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