With all due respect to Tom Hooper’s Cthulhuian hellscape known as Cats, the question wasn’t whether Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would dominate the weekend box office; it was by how much it’d outpace the competition. And with an opening weekend gross of $175.5 million, per Box Office Mojo, The Rise of Skywalker put together the third-highest December opening of all time—a massive haul elevated by the film’s taking in nearly $200 million in international markets. But the results, while staggering, were slightly bittersweet for Disney: a reminder that context is just as important as box office receipts.
The two films with higher December openings than Rise of Skywalker? That would be the Star Wars entries that preceded it in the so-called Skywalker Saga: The Force Awakens (with nearly $248 million) and The Last Jedi ($220 million). It’s not like audience interest in Star Wars has completely dissipated—the closest thing this franchise can get to a box office bomb is Solo: A Star Wars Story, which still made $393 million—but this downward spiral could hint at a slightly less enthused response to this trilogy, which has found itself mired in what appears to be competing visions between directors J.J. Abrams (The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi).
Regardless of where you stand on the seeming Abrams-Johnson divide, the dissonance among the three films seems to have affected how moviegoers are responding to Rise of Skywalker. The film, storywise, is kind of all over the place and leaves lots of confusing, unanswered questions, including never properly explaining how Emperor Palpatine survived getting thrown down an air shaft by his protégé. (I am also permanently scarred—spoiler alert—by the knowledge that the Emperor has canonically fucked.) The Rise of Skywalker earned a B-plus grade from CinemaScore, which doesn’t sound bad, but it’s the only live-action Star Wars entry that didn’t receive an A. Even George Lucas’s much-maligned prequels all got A-minus scores; the only other Star Wars B grade came courtesy of the 2008 Clone Wars animated film.
Last Jedi detractors, who have manifested in some annoying ways online, would want you to believe the problems began with Johnson’s film. And, look, fans are totally within their right to have their issues with the movie—as long as they aren’t harassing actresses on social media—but on the whole, Star Wars fans seemed to respond well to the first sequel. Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi had an A grade.
Some of this mess could’ve been avoided by Disney, had there been more oversight on important story lines—such as Rey’s parentage—and a bit more Marvel-like synergy. But don’t feel too bad for one of the most powerful entertainment companies on the planet: The Rise of Skywalker is still making bank and, issues aside, will probably exceed $1 billion at the box office. The question is where Star Wars will go from here.
The future of the franchise on the big screen is a lot murkier than its prospects on Disney+, where The Mandalorian is thriving with a steady stream of random comedian cameos, Werner Herzog, and of course, Baby Yoda. (An Obi-Wan show and a Cassian Andor–led series that may or may not see Diego Luna touch Jabba the Hutt’s slimy skin—fingers crossed for our lovable weirdo—are also on the way.) Rian Johnson is still, in theory, going to work on his own Star Wars trilogy—though both parties have been relatively quiet since that initial announcement in 2017. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, better known as the guys responsible for the haphazard finish to Game of Thrones, left their own plans for a trilogy in a galaxy far, far away for greener pastures (read: $200 million) at Netflix. The imminent future of Star Wars may lie in streaming, and perhaps the franchise needs a bit of a reset after this trilogy. And when the day comes to make more Star Wars movies, Disney can do a lot worse than being led by the steady hand of Kevin Feige.
Now that we’ve got Star Wars out of the way, it’s time to address the more pressing matter: the schadenfreude of Cats. The internet initially pounced on this waking nightmare in the summer, when the first trailer evoked the sort of surrealist horror you rarely see outside of David Lynch’s filmography. But just because the internet loved making Cats memes and reviews of the movie were hilarious didn’t necessarily mean people would actually pay to torture themselves—as a result, the film bombed with a meager $6.5 million in its first weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. That is really bad, especially when you factor in a production budget of nearly $100 million.
What was that money spent on? you might ask while staring at the titular cats’ terrifying, mangled faces. Universal might have the same question, seeing as theaters have been notified that they’ll be receiving another version of the film with updated special effects—one in which you apparently won’t see Judi Dench’s human hand and wedding ring. (Reminder: She is supposed to be a cat.)
This isn’t a joke: CATS was rushed into theaters before being finished so a new version is being sent to theaters with updated effects. How do you know if you have the old version? Look for Judi Dench’s human hand, wedding ring and all. pic.twitter.com/VDUOevePU9— Jenelle Riley (@jenelleriley) December 22, 2019
This is incredible. I would almost feel bad for Cats, were Tom Hooper not the most boring, milquetoast director to have ever lived. The best-case scenario for Universal is that this film has a long, post-Christmas life at the box office, like The Greatest Showman a couple of years ago. But that movie clearly benefited from positive word of mouth. Every person I’ve spoken to who’s seen Cats didn’t necessarily have a bad time—they were more like, “Please have an edible and go see this”—but when I’m high I’d rather just lie in my bed and listen to synthwave mixes, not pay to give myself a Dion Waiters–esque panic attack looking at CGI cockroaches and mice with human faces. (These are apparently the real, horrifying things you will see in Cats.) What a win for dogs.
So while Disney might not be totally elated with how fans are responding to The Rise of Skywalker at the box office thus far, there’s always a silver lining. It didn’t make Cats.