In 1970, Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori first hypothesized the concept of the uncanny valley: the idea that the more a robotic humanoid or computer-generated replica of a human is designed to appear realistic, the more the ways that it is decidedly not human become apparent, leading to a feeling of unease if not disgust. Science has never been able to fully explain or even confirm Mori’s theory, but there’s no denying that nearly humanoid CGI continues to invite repulsion. The oft-forgotten (but, in hindsight, watershed) 2001 movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was the first “photorealistic” computer-animated film, but was a box office bomb. Critics pointed towards the unsettling nature of the CGI. Audiences seemed to agree.
Though, in more recent years, some studies have begun to question whether such strong reactions to uncanny valley effect still exists, if they ever did. Not only has hyper-realistic animation in both films and video games become fare more common, but thanks to apps like FaceTime and various social media filters, humans themselves are digitally editing themselves to appear at least partially CGI-enhanced. Some studies have shown evidence of a generational divide: older folks are still revolted by the effect, while younger audiences, raised on Pixar movies and Mortal Kombat games, don’t seem to see what the problem is.
This, of course, is all to set up a discussion of the latest trailer for Cats, the movie in which director Tom Hooper made the decision to cover his actors in “digital fur technology” but left their faces almost human. The first trailer for the movie roundly horrified the internet. The image of Jennifer Hudson’s earnestly belting out a song while appearing as some half-cat, half-human monstrosity was seared into our brains, where it has sat since July.
It appears, perhaps, our brains have gotten used to it. When we clicked on today’s trailer, the sense of horror had passed. These were the cats we had come to know and tacitly acknowledge. There was Taylor Swift cat, and Idris Elba cat, and even Ian McKellen cat, looking completely how we had come to expect them to look. It’s not to say that we accept any of this as normal or aesthetically please, but rather that, well, we’ve accepted it.
Have we officially crossed the uncanny valley forever?
Of course, the idea that perhaps the more we’re exposed to it, the more the visual horror of the cats subsides, might both explain how the hundreds of people who worked on this movie thought it was a good idea while providing hope for Universal Picture’s accounting department. Spend enough money blanketing television commercial breaks with the trailers, and we all might be desensitized by it enough to head to the theaters, $16 in our hands and the melody of “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” ringing in our heads. After all, 15 years after the failure of the Final Fantasy movie, a CGI Final Fantasy character starred in her own Louis Vuitton campaign. Times change.
Though, the temporary suspension of our revulsion for the cats appearance did allow us to face another potential horror: the plot.
Yes, all the talk of CGI had almost made us forget that this is a movie musical about which cats is ultimately chosen to partake in an elaborate death ceremony.