Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER and CATS

'Tis the season of forgiveness, so I hope I'll be pardoned for this combined review that'll likely annoy two distinct sets of readers: Star Wars fans who couldn't care less about a furry stage sensation from the 1980s, and movie fans of all types who've been relishing the vicious, snarky take-downs of this year's (this decade's? this century's?) biggest movie fiasco and don't want one interrupted by any mention of Star Wars. Try as I might, though, I can't separate the experiences of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Cats quite as simply as I'd like – partly because I saw the two within mere minutes of each other, and partly because, when all was said and done, I had a better time at Cats. I'm guessing there will now be a few additional sets of readers whom I'll have to ask for forgiveness.

Can we at least agree that the two properties have more in common than many would like to admit? George Lucas debuted his original science-fiction adventure in 1977, the pricey film a risky gamble that effectively changed the cinematic landscape and led to off-the-charts financial success and seven Academy Awards. Andrew Lloyd Webber debuted his sung-through dance musical in 1981, the pricey production a risky gamble that effectively changed the theatrical landscape and led to off-the-charts financial success and seven Tony Awards. Both Star Wars – or, if you prefer, Star Wars: A New Hope – and Cats overcame mixed reviews to become iconoclastic pop-culture smashes and uncontested fetish objects. Both the movie series and the stage show have enjoyed staggering international success, with the Star Wars episodes playing equally well to audiences in any language and Cats boasting professional presentations in more than 30 countries. (Japan's version, which opened in 1983, is still running.) Both feature characters with profoundly goofy names, be they Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, and Maz Kanata, or Griddlebone, Jellylorum, and Rum Tum Tugger.

Here's the thing, though: Only one of them has been a figure of ridicule for three decades-plus, and despite the shade people throw at Attack of the Clones and The Last Jedi, it ain't Star Wars. Before I graduated from high school in 1986, Webber's musical was already a punchline employed as eye-rolling “praise” for the unworthy (“I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats”), and by the start of the '90s, it was routinely cited as the exemplar of bourgeoise nonsense, notably in the scripts for Tony Kushner's Angels in America and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. Cats was what theatre people referenced in order to mock theatre, or at least the presumed bad taste of certain types of theatre-goers. And for the most part, it still is.

By contrast, and despite occasional controversies arising from the likes of Jar Jar Binks and screechy little Anakin, the Star Wars franchise's reputation has only grown stronger and louder over the years, with its loudest fan base eventually taking such direct ownership of “their” series that they're now able to redesign entire plotlines and make filmmakers such as J.J. Abrams bend to their collective will. (Star Wars' most aggressive social-media critics have practically become Darth Vader or Kylo Ren, extending their arms and making gripping motions with their hands while those in their path are invisibly strangled.) Cats lovers, of which there actually are still a few, know what the musical is and adore it despite its faults. Star Wars lovers – and George “Greedo shot first” Lucas is definitely among them – want the faults removed, and generally speaking, they get their way.

All of which might help explain why, on the most fundamental of levels, I preferred director Tom Hooper's admittedly bat-shit-insane Cats over Abrams' far more proficient yet far less engaging Rise of Skywalker. Hooper's film has enormous, unignorable problems; we'll get to those. But it's at least a swing for the fences, and an intensely brave one, at that. Abrams' franchise conclusion (or, more accurately, “conclusion”) is nothing if not safety-conscious, and as such, it's a much bigger disappointment.

Adam Driver in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Clearly, and despite the already ginormous box-office intake, it's still way too early in the movie's run for Rise of Skywalker spoilers – which is fine, because two days after seeing the film, I'm having trouble remembering much. Besides, we know the drill: It's the Resistance versus the First Order again, with our heroes (principally Daisy Ridley's Rey, John Boyega's Finn, and Oscar Isaac's Poe) bravely trekking the galaxy in search of creatures and tchotchkes designed to defeat the evil empire (principally Adam Driver's Kylo Ren) once and for all. Things, you may recall, got a bit complicated in Rian Johnson's 2017 The Last Jedi, which found, among many other things, Rey's much-hypothesized lineage apparently of no major significance, Kylo Ren seemingly turning his back on the First Order (destroying his mask as proof of his independence), and the nefarious Snoke eliminated before we ever really learned anything about him. As someone who enjoys the unexpected in his movies, I was on-board with all of this. Loads of supremely upset Star Wars followers weren't, however, and from the very first “The dead speak!” sentence of Rise of Skywalker's opening crawl – underscored, as always, by the John Williams anthem – you can sense Abrams' and co-writer Chris Terrio's game plan: It's back to the familiar, starting with the resurrection of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Within 15 minutes, the return of this previously executed villain will effectively retcon most, if not all, of fans' Last Jedi issues. This could be described as “course-correction.” It could also be called “chickening out.”

The brouhaha surrounding The Last Jedi and how Johnson “ruined” Star Wars for multitudes of admirers always struck me as a particularly sulky form of hostility: Things didn't work out the way some super-fans assumed they would, and so they hated the movie for it. These viewers might very well worship Rise of Skywalker, which caters to their collective desires so cravenly that everyone who ever complained about Last Jedi on a Web site or podcast should receive billing as a co-executive producer. You want Kylo Ren to return to his more simplified plan of inter-planetary dominion? Done! (The guy even solders his destroyed helmet back together.) You want less of Kelly Marie Tan's sidekick Rose Tico? You got it! You want nothing whatsoever to do with that weird detour involving Benicio Del Toro? No problem! Even the “surprise” return appearances here are no surprise whatsoever given that Abrams is clearly less interested in creating a vivid stand-alone experience than a two-and-a-half-hour exercise in unmitigated fan service. This isn't an altogether-bad thing, and I'd be lying if I said that a few of the more left-field callbacks didn't make me smile in recognition and nostalgia. But because the risk-averse nature of Rise of Sywalker is evident in just about every nanosecond, from the sameness of Poe's Solo-lite wisecracks to the plethora of battle scenes, alien planets, and bizarre-looking figures that echo those from previous installments, I found Abrams' latest Star Wars outing tedious at best and desperately unimaginative, even insulting, at worst.

On a purely technical level, the film is satisfying enough, I guess. While the effects may, by now, all look par for the course, they're pulled off with obvious skill, and sometimes – as with the sight of a sky littered with hundreds of distinct spacecrafts – they even rekindle some of the epic grandeur that we old-timers still remember from those unforgettable first Star Wars moments back in 1977. And graced with a collectively more gifted cast (yeah, I said it) than we were treated to in either the first trilogy or the second, this new outing finds Abrams' performers close to unimpeachable, with Ridley and Driver, especially, finding extraordinary avenues of focus and empathy as their paths inevitably merge. The actors and visuals, however, still weren't enough to keep me from yawning more than a dozen times, as I was mostly bored with what I was watching, and just as bored knowing that events, by careful design, weren't ever going to get more interesting. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will make loads of its viewers very, very happy, and I'm happy for them; there's currently more mass joy being expressed in my Facebook feed than I've seen in years, and God knows we could all use more of that. I just wish the film inspired some joy from me personally ... or that it had at least inspired one-tenth of the active, agog, “WTF?!?” grin that I so routinely got from Cats.

Francesca Hayward in Cats

So. Okay. The Cats movie. Here's what I know from seeing it, and what most of you, I presume, know from reading about it: The story is stupid. (The story has always been stupid.) The music is largely forgettable. The lyrics, especially in group numbers, are frequently unintelligible. The kitties are creepy. The costumes are confounding. (Why are cats wearing fur coats? What could that mean?!) The effects are mostly horrific, with Universal Studios actually sending out replacement prints of the movie with the visuals purportedly improved. (Like that'll help.) The sizes of the cats have no consistency. The dances are over-edited. The newly included spoken dialogue, by director Hooper and War Horse author Lee Hall, basically amounts to skin-crawling puns in the manner of “Cat got your tongue?” and “Look what the cat dragged in!” The sentimentality is queasy. The portentousness is laughable. And yes, Taylor Swift does indeed descend from the rafters on a crescent moon that, as the New York Times' Manhola Dargis memorably declared, “ejaculates iridescent catnip.” Cats is the weirdest, flakiest, most mind-boggling time I've had at the cineplex in more months than I could possibly count. And I wouldn't have traded the experience for the world.

One of the dirty little secrets about the stage rendition of Cats is that even performers who know how ridiculous it is lo-o-o-ove doing that show. And why wouldn't they? It's acting at its most primal, the way we were all introduced to the concept of “pretend” when we were very young: For two hours, you're a cat – go! There are all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons for loathing Webber's creation. Yet from a performer's standpoint, it invites self-motivated invention, movement, and introspection (“What kind of cat am I … ?”) like few other musicals you can name. And when you're witness to some two dozen singers and dancers uniting for two dozen truly specific renderings of individual, human-sized felines, your complaints – at least in exceptional takes on the material – somehow fly right out the window. That's the dirty little secret of why audiences love it: It's actually thrilling to watch grown-ups gathered for a stage workout so profoundly silly, so childish, and to see them instead treating their fur-scratching, claw-baring duties with the utmost seriousness. The actors are pretending to be cats, and you accept them as cats, and everyone goes home happy (and, of course, humming “Memory”).

I have no idea if Tom Hooper knows this. Based on his throw-everything-into-the-pot direction, I'm not sure how much he knows about anything. But it takes significant guts to recreate the Cats experience for the big screen and choose to keep it so thoroughly stage-bound, with talented actors – even a couple of Oscar-winning ones – willing to look so deeply foolish in kitty costumes against tacky sets, and with even Webber's synth-heavy, unmistakably-'80s score not updated for the changes in medium and decade. It's one of the most staggeringly un-hip movies, let alone movie musicals, I've ever seen, and somehow perversely laudable in that regard. Cats was never cool. Fittingly, its film version isn't, either. But lord is it watchable, even if you're sometimes watching, mortified, through the fingers covering your face.

Ian McKellen in Cats

As I began with a laundry list of complaints, let me conclude with one devoted to pleasures: The lithe, supple movements of the Royal Ballet's principal dancer Francesca Hayward, in her film debut, as principal feline Victoria. Andy Blankenbuehler's elegant, frequently acrobatic choreography, which always suits the songs' genres and is consistently riveting whenever Hooper isn't editing them to flashy ribbons. James Corden as portly Bustopher Jones, the one character who, on two occasions, made me laugh out loud, which was two times more than I ever laughed at The Rise of Skywalker. Judi Dench's kitsch-free majesty as Old Deuteronomy. (Fun fact: Dench was originally cast in the original West End production of Cats before an injury caused her to drop out!) Ian McKellen's rather shocking emotionalism, and his beautiful sing-speak, as Gus the Theatre Cat. (Even-more-fun fact: In the film version of Six Degrees of Separation, McKellen plays a wealthy South African who yearns to be in the movie version of Cats!) Jason Derulo's self-aware seductiveness as Rum Tum Tugger. Broadway veteran Robbie Fairchild's devastating magnetism as Munkustrap, the poor cat who does a majority of the solo singing yet never gets his name mentioned. The exuberant Jellicle Ball dance, which deserves applause here as much as it would in any first-rate stage version. And, yes, “Memory,” even if Jennifer Hudson overdoes it with the sadness and snot, like the Anne Hathaway of Hooper's Les Misérables reincarnated as an owner-less tabby in 1930s England.

There's more – oh God is there more, including Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone, Laurie Davidson's touching Mr. Mistoffelees, Steven McRae's Skimbleshanks tap dancing in red suspenders, a cadre of line-stepping cockroaches, cat tails that become instantly erect in the face of sexy danger, and Idris Elba in a role, and a “naked cat” costume, he won't be living down any time soon. It's absurd. It's exuberant. It's (unintentionally) terrifying. It's (really unintentionally) hilarious. It's mesmerizing. And it's so ballsy that it puts 90 percent of Hollywood's other output to shame. With a new franchise-dependent blockbuster always around the corner, the latest Star Wars will likely pass through our collective pop-consciousness within a couple of months. Cats, like it or not, is now and forever.

 

For reviews of Bombshell, The Two Popes, and The Aeronauts, visit “Fox Force Three.”

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