This Is the Backstory You Need to Understand Cats (2019)
For starters: it's actually dystopian science fiction
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I am not the first person to say that the experience of watching Cats (2019) is like being on drugs, or maybe like having your brain directly stimulated with an electrode. I spent the whole time either laughing hysterically with no proximal cause, or staring as if rapt—but I wasn’t rapt, I was simply unable to metabolize what I was seeing. You’ve probably heard about the Rebel Wilson cat unzipping her skin and then eating a human-faced cockroach, but believe me when I say that is the least of it. That’s an indignity that can be expressed in a sentence, with words. Most of Cats—which, to be clear, I loved—is best expressed by flailing.
But humans are not meant to live this way, cheek by jowl with the truly uncanny. This is what drives Lovecraft’s protagonists to madness when they’re faced with eldritch geometries. This is, arguably, the engine behind all human innovation, every move we’ve made as a species: the fact that we cannot sit comfortably with the unknown and unknowable. And so, as soon as I left the theater—walking, on my way, past a woman sitting on the floor outside the ladies’ room wailing “I don’t know how to go home and face my cat”—I started to formulate a unifying backstory, something that would make the maniacal chaos of Cats congeal into…well, if not something that makes sense, then at least something interpretable by the human mind. I tweeted about it a bit, and since then, have been patiently answering everyone’s frantic post-Cats questions by explaining it again. For easy reference, then, here is the information you need to process Cats.
This backstory is not approved by Tom Hooper, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or T.S. Eliot. Nevertheless, it is correct and definitive.
The year is… doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s even the present day—in most of the world. But sometime in the early 20th century, a gene-altering virus started to spread through England, turning people into monstrous half-cats and cats into monstrous half-people. The virus is slow-moving and non-deadly, but permanently alters your DNA; former people and former cats can now interbreed, eventually resulting in a generation of cat-people who retain some human instincts and passed-down habits but also many of the effects of centuries of feline domestication. Because Great Britain is an island, even a slow-moving virus affected a large proportion of the population, but the disease is not as widespread outside of England and Scotland. Accordingly, Great Britain has become a combination prison/quarantine for the afflicted. If you catch the Cat Plague elsewhere, they put you in a sack and ship you over.
I said it doesn’t matter what year it is, but that’s not quite true. In England, it will always be the 1910s; the people-cats have ineffectual little hands, and their technology has basically stagnated. Most of their cultural references, too, are weirdly frozen in the post-Victorian, pre-war era. (Maybe, in this world, we had the Cat Plague instead of the first world war.) The culture that has developed since The Change has been of a more apocalyptic kind: death cults, strange rituals, the compulsive creation and maintenance of in-groups and out-groups in order to survive. Whatever year it is in the outside world, it’s been long enough—probably three cat generations at least—for these twisted belief systems to develop and take firm hold. Hence: the Jellicles, the mythologized victims of what I’ve just now decided was called the JLCL virus. Hence: the Ball.
I will now proceed to show how this explanation answers all the most frequently-asked questions about Cats (2019):
Why does the ballerina cat sit patiently through a song explaining how cats get their names, which as a cat she would presumably already know?
The ballerina cat is newly-infected and has just been dropped off in quarantine. She knows little about the culture or experience of these third(?)-generation cats.
Why are the buildings clearly sized for humans but intended for cats, e.g. the Milk Bar?
The cats are not equipped to build new structures, so they have instead adapted existing structures for their use.
Why do they keep using expressions like “cat got your tongue” which would make no sense for a cat to say?
The feline victims of JLCL had no spoken language to pass down to their descendants. Cat communication therefore happens fully in English and, as with all languages, retains some idioms that have over time become nonsensical. Cat-based idioms were actually more likely to survive, because they felt newly relevant.
Why are the mice and cockroaches also humanoid?
Protective coloration, which does not work.
Why are some, but only some, of the cats wearing clothes?
Just as some humans are more instinctively connected with the instinctual tendencies of our primate and early hominid ancestors (running around all day, eating a paleo diet, facing danger, being uncomfortable, etc.), some of the post-human cats still feel the pull to be dressed. They’re the cat equivalent of people who go on survival reality shows. They have no trouble making the clothes, as the virus has spared their thumbs, unless you saw the patched version of the movie I guess.
What does being sent to the Heaviside Layer mean, exactly?
Oh, I think you know. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself.
So you’re saying the cats engage in cultish human-cat sacrifice once a year?
Actually, because one human year equals about four cat years, they engage in cultish human-cat sacrifice once every thirteen weeks.
Whose kitchen is Jennyanydots living in and why does she say she can’t leave?
That is obviously a former human family’s kitchen, though the humans are now long-fled or turned. Due to the genetic effects of domestication, and of their home-owning ancestors, many of the human cats are instinctively more comfortable holing up in these abandoned residences instead of skulking around on the streets. (Some, like Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the spelling of which I’m embarrassed to say I did not have to look up due to reading Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats a LOT as a very cool preteen, do both, compulsively replaying their personal drama of rejecting and then plundering the comfortable life. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, who are clearly siblings and you guys are perverts, obviously descend from housecats who went feral.)
Why are these cultural references so dated?
Again, because development in England shut down in the 1910s, and not because Andrew Lloyd Webber for some inexplicable reason thought it was unnecessary to do any lyrical updates on source material like “ho hi, oh, my eye” and “in all of St. James’s, the smartest of names is the name of this Brummel of cats.”
Why does magic work, if this is supposedly a sci-fi story and not fantasy?
In the dark years after the plague began, humanoid cats sought out and perfected strong hallucinogenic drugs that they call “catnip,” for obvious reasons. This is what Bombalurina is shown distributing; it is not the relatively innocuous feline loco-weed you’re thinking of. She and the rest of the cat-person Dark Web are basically doing that all the time; there’s just a thin rime of “catnip” on everything.
Alternately, cats are just stupid.
How big are these fucking cats? How come they sometimes seem bigger and sometimes smaller?
This is England, so they are being filmed through raindrops, which have a refractive effect.
Why are Judi Dench’s feet so small?
Judi Dench’s feet are of normal size for a cat-person. Old Deuteronomy is simply a very large and furry cat, so the feet look small in proportion. It is normal and fine.
When humans die in the Cats universe, do the humanoid cats still eat them?
There are no Old Humans within the confines of the former Britain. That said, yes, the cats would eat them if there were.
Why does the Taylor Swift cat have boobs, and why is she singing in a fake British accent, as if out of everything in this absolutely deranged movie the one thing we wouldn’t be able to suspend disbelief for is an American-sounding cat?
This one is inexplicable.