Familiar scratches: A critical review of “Lily C.A.T.” (1987)

Is it just me, or does the idea of sleeper ships seems like a monetary sinkhole? The corporation funding the operation has to be pretty confident they’ll be around in the 20 years it takes to get to the salvage site or mining world or whatever. The crew members, meanwhile, have to hope that their hazard pay will keep up with inflation. That’s 20 years both ways, remember. I can’t imagine Adam Smith would approve.

Still, that sort of value was probably not in the heads of the producers of 1987 OVA “Lily C.A.T.” They did have another value in mind, which was a kind of economy of narrative. When it comes to bad cosmic horror flicks, “C.A.T.” is another example of a mediocre film brought low by blatantly borrowing from other media.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A motley crew of blue-collar workers, space jockeys and company wage slaves is pulled out of suspended animation to explore a mining world, somewhere and when in the distant future. Naturally people start disappearing, their bodies later found contorted in terror and dripping with alien bacteria, while other times only their discarded clothes remain. To figure out what’s going on, the dwindling crew has to investigate the connection between the disappearances and deaths, a monstrous presence on board, and an all too human murderer in their midst.

“C.A.T.” could establish some interesting mystery except for two things. The first is that it reveals some of its mysteries right off the bat – as in, during the title sequence. We see a prehistoric space rock strike the ship, so there’s nothing to discover with the crew when they start freaking out about a damaged hull and alien bacteria. They’re just catching up with us, and that’s no fun.

To be fair, the intro theme that plays under the credits is pretty good. It’s a combination of stirring orchestral cues and sinister electronic flourishes. And the animation – sweeping robot arms and hurtling space junk – is detailed and smooth. It’s a pity that’s about as good as audio or visuals will ever get. The soundtrack mostly utilizes boilerplate thriller synthesizers – not bad but not outstanding – and the visuals… we’ll get there.

The other reason there’s no real mystery here is because “C.A.T.” is painfully obvious about its influences. There’s no question the OVA lacks originality; the only question is what it’s ripping off more: “Alien” or “The Thing”? And the answer is: “yes.”

On one hand you have: the cargo ship of a ruthless corporation for the setting; an alien entity bothering the ship’s cat; an AI called Mother; robotic revelations; a tense moment when the hanger door blows open; blocky white sci fi furniture; geometric hallways lined with ropy braids of wires and lit by slatted windows; space chains.

On the other hand you have: an alien organism that appears to infect via blood; a forensic hunt for someone who is not what they appear to be; civilian scientists in an isolated setting with more curiosity than sense; a computer flashing cryptic messages about an invasive life-form taking over Earth; a human face splitting in half; a dead body on a gurney that subtly moves when no one’s looking; tentacles.

There’s also flamethrowers, cos while one can probably have cosmic horror with them, do we really want to take that chance?

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, and we should think of “C.A.T.” as a really, really slavish homage rather than a straight-up rip-off. The problem is that if we tear out all that, uh, adoration, we’re left with a second-rate slice of sci fi horror. The OVA needs to have both a large enough cast to properly murder and to tell its story in less than 70 minutes, so no character is given any breathing room to become interesting. That does explain why no one seems particularly upset about the rapidly growing pile of dead bodies on the ship. No one in the cast – or audience – cares about anyone on board.

Thematically there are some admirable attempts at philosophizing, with the most attention on considering what kinds of people would lose decades of their lives to long-distance space travel. There’s also some musing on the theme of “live life,” which could have been an opportunity for an interesting consideration of how both man and parasite just want to survive. Instead, that’s ignored in favor of a closing speech that shoots for rousing but hits “budget motivational speaker” instead – not to mention it’s delivered during the film’s most awkward editing. You might find it charming or mawkish depending on your mood, but it’s clumsy and goofy either way.

As previously discussed, if we’re skipping the borrowed aspects of design, we have to ignore spaceships and most of the creatures featured – even when it’s not overly familiar, the space critter ends up being a fairly unimaginative mass of tentacles. Not hentai tentacles though. Well, for the most part… How do the humans look? Ugly, like anemic playing cards rather than people. Surprisingly, creature designs were by Yoshitaka Amano and character designs were by Yasuomi Umetsu, who respectively worked on the inventive “Twilight of the Cockroaches” and the stunning “Robot Carnival” around this time.

There are some atmospheric lighting choices during the hallway crawls, and there is a kinda gory shot of a cat evisceration, so that’ll please old school anime weirdos. There’s even a flash of something that looks like early computer assisted animation, but I ain’t no expert on that. The film at least answers what looked like a big old plot hole at the beginning about a message from corporate HQ. Even the size of the cat, which changes depending on the shot, might have an in-universe explanation… or else someone in continuity just wasn’t doing their job. But that’s “Lily C.A.T.” in a nutshell. Between its influences and its quality, it’s a film that paradoxically tries too hard and doesn’t care at all.

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