The Hollywood adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats opened in theaters last week to a bewildered cacophony of yowls and hisses from critics, some of whom objected to a two-hour unexpected staging of The Unbearable Horniness of Feline Being. No, I haven’t seen the movie, but a lot — a lot — of people have been remarking on this particular aspect of the film. Now, in a completely unprecedented move (but after an abysmal opening weekend), Cats is receiving an update… while still in theaters.
The staging and effects of Cats was apparently rough — there’s been a lot of reviewers commenting on the oddness of, well, everything. I don’t typically write about issues with choreography and the difficulties of putting human-sized cats in scale with their surroundings according to a baffling artistic vision and am much more comfortable describing things in terms of which CPU is beating the other in an objectively measurable test. I’m going to allow Vulture’s Alison Willmore to handle this, because a couple of paragraphs in her review seem to capture the experience of seeing Cats best.
Onstage they are played by actors in tufty leotards and makeup; in the movie the actors have been given computer-generated fur, expressive ears, and highly mobile tails, effects that look unfailingly disturbing. Sometimes they walk and talk like humans, and other times they crawl around and nuzzle each other like felines. I know what you’re thinking — is this a sex thing? Look, it is not not a sex thing. Mostly, though, it’s like an acting exercise allowed to grow to an incomprehensible scale, and then given lyrics drawn from a selection of light poems by T.S. Eliot. (Emphasis original)
To assess Cats as good or bad feels like the entirely wrong axis on which to see it. It is, with all affection, a monstrosity. Hooper devoted his 2012 take on Les Misérables to the proposition that movie musicals are best experienced through handheld camerawork, uvula-friendly close-ups, and live singing for greater realism (or something). He repeats this approach in Cats, a property designed to repel realism with every fiber of its being, with the added complication of dance numbers. These he shoots from various angles while only every once in a while settling on one that allows the audience to appreciate the choreography by seeing whole bodies in motion.
As of right now, Cats has a 17 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 34 percent on Metacritic, and a 2.6/10 rating on IMDB. The Metacritic audience score is a 5.8, with 87 positive, 7 mixed, and 64 negative reactions. The director, Tom Hooper, has made no secret of the fact that he was editing the movie until the 11th hour, having finished mere hours before the movie went to premiere.
Nobody Tell George Lucas
Updating movies is, of course, nothing new. I’m not sure what the first movie was to ever receive a round of edits between releases, but Wikipedia notes that The Wild Bunch was the first film to use the concept of a “director’s cut,” in 1974, after having been originally released in 1969. Back before the home video market boomed, it was common to release films — Gone With The Wind has been rereleased seven times in US history. Charlie Chaplin may be the first person to release a “director’s cut” in film, with his 1942 re-release of The Gold Rush, which added a recorded musical score, narration (done by Chaplin), removed plot points, and increased the running speed to 24fps.
But while Hollywood has been making various changes to films for nearly 80 years, these edits were always performed in-between major theatrical releases. The fact that this latest update is being pushed the theaters via satellite download is something new and unusual indeed. Theaters that aren’t equipped for satellite downloads will receive hard drives via post bearing the updated film.
What, precisely, has been updated? Nobody seems to have that information, beyond “updated special effects.” This kind of decision has interesting implications for the movie industry and indeed, for film preservation. In the past, we’ve always known which version of a movie we were dealing with. While Disney may never officially re-release the original Star Wars films, the various changes to each have been catalogued (and something close to the originals recovered, by diligent fan work). If films are updated while in theaters, the question of what version of the movie represents the “official” release is a good deal muckier, and “both” isn’t likely to satisfy cinephiles.
The other major question is whether a few additional days of work is going to be enough to make a meaningful difference in any movie. A movie like Cats is the product of entire teams of VFX producers and editors in addition to the director (and directors rarely have final say over what constitutes the finished cut of a film). It would be one thing to fix an outright mistake or accidental omission of an already-finished scene, but it seems unlikely that any changes made post-launch are going to be enough to save the final product. Movies may be patchable now, but games are still far more amenable to being reinvented once they’re already in the wild.
This update is at Tom Hooper’s request and contains “improved visual effects.” Whether they meaningfully improve the film remains to be seen. At least one critic believes the movie isn’t nearly horny or queer enough. I saw the musical at roughly the same age as the author, but appear to have taken much less away from exposure to the show (save for Memory, which I’ve always loved).
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