The colossal critical and commercial failure of Cats has prompted critics to search box office records for similarly cataclysmic expensive movie flops. They’ll find that Cats has very few peers.
It's hard to convey in words what makes Tom Hooper's version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical so uniquely awful. Like the infinite nature of the universe, the human mind may not be able to comprehend the depths involved.
Watching it, by the time Rebel Wilson’s introductory sequence as Jennyanydots was over I thought I had lived 1000 lifetimes, all of them as a Roman galley slave or a German peasant during the Black Death.
The most I can say is that Cats didn’t get any worse after the first half hour, during which I found myself staring at the screen in shock like the audience in 1967’s The Producers on the opening night of Springtime for Hitler.
Arriving home after Cats, I greeted my dog with a heightened sense of respect and admiration. And he had just been drinking from the toilet.
Already in line to be the biggest flop of 2019-20, Cats cost nearly $140 million to make and could lose almost all of that, according to Variety.
Not all critical and commercial flops are bad films. Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) were both considered disappointments on release. Oscar winner Hugo (2011) and Oscar nominee Ali (2001) both lost around $90 million.
While Cats rules in the spectactular disaster stakes, here's some other expensive movie flops:
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) Estimated loss $20.8m
The film that brought the sword and sandal genre to crashing ruin, The Fall of the Roman Empire catapulted historical epic producer Samuel Bronston into bankruptcy. But as if to disprove F Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives (or NZ/Australian ones) the movie was virtually remade in 2000 as the Russell Crowe-starring mega-hit Gladiator.
Heaven’s Gate (1980) Estimated loss $130m
Heaven’s Gate brought United Artists to its knees and is now considered a salutary lesson in what results when you give a wunderkind director (Michael Cimino, fresh off his Deer Hunter success) an unlimited budget and limited supervision. An incoherent, overblow western that isn’t as dreadful as its reputation. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Cutthroat Island (1995) Estimated loss $129m
An international co-production between the US, Germany and Italy, Cutthroat Island reflects the scale of the disaster that might have resulted had America fallen in with the Axis powers in the 1940s. This noisy Geena Davis and Matthew Modine mess saw pirate movies consigned to Davy Jones’ Locker before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise salvaged them eight years later.
The Postman (1997) Estimated loss $102m
Another post-apocalyptic vanity project from Kevin Costner, The Postman makes 1995’s soggy Waterworld look as magisterial as Lawrence of Arabia.
Battlefield Earth (2000) Estimated loss $107m
What do you do when the hottest director in town performs CPR on your ailing career, garnering you an Oscar nomination in the process? If you’re John Travolta you detonate said career all over again by producing and starring in a freak show sci-fi based on the writings of the founder of the weird cult you belong to. Battlefield Earth is an experience as painful as a Scientology audit.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) Estimated loss $140m
Eddie Murphy is one of the few actors who could give Travolta a lesson in career self-sabotage and this woeful space ‘comedy’ shows why.
Alexander (2004) Estimated loss $103m
Oliver Stone directs Colin Farrell and Val Kilmer playing Alexander the Great and his father Philip II as drunken Irish brawlers while Angelina Jolie channels Rocky ' Bullwinkle’s Natasha to vamp it up as Alex’s mother Olympias. What could go wrong? Watch it if only for the absolutely bonkers bedroom scene between Alex and bride Roxanna (Rosario Dawson).
Green Lantern (2011) Estimated loss $131m
Green Lantern set the standard for the poor performance of DC Universe films against their more gifted Marvel cousins. The fact that Ryan Reynolds managed to resurrect his superhero career via Marvel’s Deadpool constitutes a super feat in itself.
It should be noted that although these films are financial disasters they are not free of their own guilty pleasures.
There’s something obscenely compelling about watching John Travolta’s head alien, Terl, in a revoltingly sticky sex scene with real life bride Kelly Preston as an extraterrestrial Jessica Rabbit in Battlefield Earth.
Cats contains no such enjoyments. The closest the audience gets was the end, where for a moment it seemed Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy would reveal that we had actually died on our way to the cinema.
No such luck, and eight lives to go anyway.