There were countless Alien knockoffs that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s genre-shifting 1979 classic. Roger Corman alone produced three I can name offhand (Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids from the Deep, and Battle Beyond the Stars) and even that notorious schlockteur’s takes on the Alien template weren’t the cheapest or most derivative of the bunch. Within that crowded field, the straight-to-video cheapie Lily C.A.T. had very little chance of standing out as something especially unique or worthwhile. Yet, as it escalated to its own grotesque, cosmically horrific creature-feature crescendo, I found myself gradually convinced that I was watching something truly special, something that reaches beyond the confined-space creature feature dread of its obvious inspiration source to achieve its own rewarding, unnerving effect. If you’re going to be an Alien knockoff, you might as well strive to be the best Alien knockoff, or at least the most distinct.
Part of what saves Lily C.A.T. from devolving into sub-Alien tedium is that it’s more of a mutation of that seminal work than it is a Xerox copy. The film is immediately distinct from its fellow Alien riffs in its distinction as a mid-80s anime, converting the cheap sets & limited practical effects resources of this genre template into a freeing, visually impressive handdrawn animation style. It’s also, smartly, only an hour-long – firing off its checklist of genre requirements with rapid-fire efficiency where most cheap-o Alien riffs risk drifting into boredom in their half-hearted attempts to stir up atmospheric dread. Early in the film a character even asks aloud, “Hey captain, when are we getting to work? This is getting boring,” as if to signal to the audience that no time will be wasted in getting to the goods. Lily C.A.T. also mutates the Alien template by crossbreeding it with other creature feature influences: Cronenberg, The Thing, and any number of post-Lovecraft cosmic horrors you can conjure. It’s a quick, nasty little monster movie rendered in intricately handdrawn animation – the perfect genre nerd cocktail.
The story told here is so familiar it almost doesn’t require repeating for anyone who’s ever seen a spaceship-bound horror film. A motley crew of wisecracking Corporate employees are distracted from their stated mission by a distress call & a subsequent onboard alien invasion. They’re only broadly defined as “time-jumper” types: mercenaries who use the decades of hibernated sleep associated with deep-space travel to avoid personal troubles left back on Earth. Their individual archetypes are only developed from there in the way they’re drawn (uncomfortably so in the only black character’s exaggerated facial features) and their motivations for jumping time on their home planet (uncomfortably so in the main woman’s petty revenge on a romantic rival by returning twenty years younger than her). Their personalities matter less & less as they’re picked off by the invading alien creature, of course, although the film does generate suspense in an early reveal that there are dangerous intruders hiding among them under false credentials.
The threat of an intruder lurking among the crew is only an introduction to a larger theme of imposterism, which plays out in a much more grandiose fashion with a non-human member of the crew: the titular cat. Lily C.A.T. seems to be fascinated with the implications of traveling through the far reaches of outer space with a common housecat, and expands that detail from the original Alien film to generate the majority of its creature feature chills & thrills. While the crew assumes that it only has one cat onboard, that feline is actually copied by two of its own uncanny imposters. One cat is a robotic spy that secretly answers to Corporate back home behind their backs. In fact, it’s not a cat at all, but rather a C.A.T. (a Computerized Animal-shamed Technological Robot). The other imposter cat is a shapeshifting alien creature that fills its victims’ lungs with deadly body-morphing bacteria and gradually transforms into a grotesque Lovecraftian tentacle monster that absorbs the features of its growing list of victims in an exponential creepout. The original cat, unfortunately, does not make it too long into the film’s runtime, and we’re treated to a grisly confirmation of its . . . organic nature when its time onboard is up.
Weirdly, I’m not sure if Alien superfans would be the first audience I would recommend Lily C.A.T. to, unless their favorite detail from the original film happens to be Ripley’s relationship with her cat. This cheap DTV animation never had a chance to stack up to the original in a direct comparison, nor does it really attempt to. This film’s built-in audience is more likely nerds who salivate at the idea of any horror-themed anime or, more to my own alignment, weirdo genre enthusiasts who salivate over ludicrous killer-cat creature features like Cat People ’82, Sleepwalkers, and Night of a Thousand Cats. Surely, there’s some significant overlap between those two camps who will find Lily CA.T.’s shapeshifting-feline-tentacle-monster genre thrills exactly to their tastes. If nothing else, it’s a very specific niche that strikes a tone no other Alien knockoff ever could—animated or no.