It’s always a challenge to recognize the importance of historical moments while you’re actually living through them. How often do you really stop to recognize that the world you knew yesterday is gone forever and what comes next is a great unknown, for better or worse? “Right here, right now, watching the world wake up to history” and all that, but to some it’s just another Tuesday.
As a film fan, I’ve lived through several such moments, most of them linked to technological advancements – the T-1000 in Terminator 2, Spielberg reviving the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, Tom Hanks splicing into historical footage in Forrest Gump, Toy Story’s introduction of CGI animation to the masses, the Wachowskis coining the phrase “bullet time,” Tobey Maguire swinging through the New York city skyline, Brad Pitt digitally de-aging before our very eyes in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, James Cameron giving us mocapped blue people in Avatar. Each groundbreaking in their own way, and each a unique preview of what was to come.
As I grow older, I’m gaining a deeper appreciation for all of this and, by extension, just how thoroughly filmmaking has changed in my own lifetime. I got to be alive when Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and all of the other Sundance brats and producers created the modern independent film industry. I was around when the technology finally made it possible for comic book movies to actually look like the comic books. I bore witness to an insanely good year for film like 1997 when Titanic, LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets, and The Full Monty fought for Best Picture and Boogie Nights wasn’t even nominated! I’ve lived through I don’t know how many interesting horror movie cycles and have seen the internet enable an explosion in interest in foreign cinema. I witnessed both the rise of The Coen Bros. and the ongoing brilliance of Noah Hawley’s impression of them on his TV show version of Fargo.
Now, to this list of enviable moments in film history, I must add the following: I was around when the kooky folks at Universal decide to use something called “digital fur technology” to make a bunch of famous people, including Taylor freakin’ Swift, look like cats.
You know, when I read back that last sentence that doesn’t actually sound like a great moment in movie history. That’s because it’s not. What Universal just did with its Tom Hooper-directed adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats is something else entirely. This isn’t a transformative moment in film history. No, no, no – this is the textbook definition of a fiasco of epic proportions, and, frankly, those are sometimes just as fun to live through as the good times.
With a backing of an Oscar-winning director like Hooper, Cats is a movie clearly born of a sincere desire to make something amazing, as evidenced by Idris Elba telling a CinemaCon crowd earlier this year “we spent a very very long time preparing how to be a cat” and the goal of the cast was to work very hard to perfect “the cat perspective.” People in attendance weren’t sure if they were supposed to laugh. They weren’t.
Now that we’ve seen what the digital fur in action, Cats looks like the next iteration of that time Bo Welch and Mike Myers tried to make a Cat in the Hat movie and ended up giving an entire generation a rich supply of nightmare fuel.
Behold the trailer, if you dare:
Twitter, who has the best zinger here?
Better. Much better.
Good God, that is disturbing.
Points for honesty.
Here’s the thing, though: this could still turn into a huge hit. The extreme weirdness of the film’s “human-sized cats in an oversized world with giant chairs and utensils” and digital fur technology is the stuff internet memes live for. However, memes – positive or negative – are one of the best interest-generating tools left for a movie’s publicity campaign. Look at how well it worked for Bird Box, though there the cost of entry was much lower. You just had to be a Netflix subscriber to check out the movie everyone was mocking online. Here, you have to buy a ticket and go to a movie theater. Big difference, but not insurmountable.
Furthermore, an inherent strangeness is kind of built in to the IP here. As Vanity Fair pointed out, “Cats has always been a strange musical, after all, but nonetheless has become an iconic cultural staple—one that ran for decades on Broadway.” And we are only two years removed from that winter movie seasons where a musical like The Greatest Showman defied the odds and dominated the box office. Cats is hitting that same release window.
Regardless of how well Cats ends up playing to audiences and what it ends up doing for Universal’s profits, I’ll always remember that day when the trailer dropped and the internet responded with a collective, wildly derisive “WTF is this?” Not quite “the first time I saw the T-1000,” but, still, what a time to be alive.