In the last weeks of 2019 the big studios generously served up two Christmas turkeys. Judging by the reviews I wasn’t the only person yawning through Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or wondering how Tom Hooper’s weirdly sexualised Cats ever secured a G rating.
Both films are self-conscious ‘blockbusters’ intended to appeal to a popular audience. Both are surprisingly incoherent. The Star Wars movie tries too slavishly to supply fans with everything they might want from a series finale – Oh please let it be over! – at the expense of plot and continuity. The makers of Cats rely so completely on costumes and CGI to distinguish the film from the stage version they seem to have forgotten the most basic principles of story-telling.
The Star Wars franchise is a juggernaut that guarantees the new film will make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits regardless of the luke-warm reactions. Cats is a more tricky proposition as it seems to be struggling, even though the international success of The Lion King (AUD$777.8 million and counting) suggests there is a huge audience for movies based on hit musicals. Cats debuted in 1981 and would run for 21 years in the West End and 18 years on Broadway, making it one of the popular stage shows of all time. This is a slightly depressing statistic because the music is so bloody awful.
The musical might be defined as a degraded, diluted form of opera, interbred with the instant hooks and cheap sentiment of pop. Nevertheless, the best musicals, such as West Side Story or Cabaret, are tremendously seductive. Stephen Sondheim is arguably the best of the musicalists, but if Andrew Lloyd Webber had stopped after Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), we might look back on him as a brilliant talent. Instead he has rolled on and on, churning out treacly, formulaic tunes that keep the cash registers ringing.
Cats has one memorable song, aptly called Memory, a piece of C-grade Puccini meets Celine Dion. It’s hummable but utterly maudlin. The plot, borrowed along with the lyrics, from T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), is deceptively simple: a bunch of cats called the Jellicles get together for a big annual shindig. The highlight will be when one lucky cat gets to ascend to the “Heaviside Layer”, and start a new life.
I say “deceptively” because it’s never made clear why the cats are “Jellicles”. Is it a name or some kind of category? Does it have any special meaning? Neither is it obvious why any cat would want to trade in its nine lives and “ascend” to the next world. Despite the relentless singing and dancing the entire party feels like the sacrificial rite of a primitive tribe.
This impression is exacerbated by the way Hooper has clad his all-star cast (with the merciful exception of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen) in skin-hugging, lightly furred costumes that make them look virtually naked. Few porno films could boast so much squirming, fondling and leg-spreading. If you’ve ever dreamt of Rebel Wilson clad in a body suit, waving her extremities in the air, this is the movie for you. Or perhaps you’d prefer Idris Elba in skin-tight, buttock-grabbing leotards?
After an hour of Cats I began to suspect the popcorn they fed us had been laced with a psychotropic drug. The only problem was that I wasn’t actually enjoying myself.
When it comes to Star Wars there are legions of devoted fans who treat each installment as a religious experience, but even the die-hards must have been a little disappointed by J.J.Abrams’s not-so-grand finale. For viewers that haven’t followed the series with such close attention – and I confess to having seen no more than five out of nine installments of the “saga”, not counting the spin-offs – there are no concessions.
If you didn’t see the previous film, The Last Jedi (2018), you may find yourself struggling to remember who all these people are, and what they do. Abrams is so focused on addressing the rusted-on fans that he leaves the rest of us lost in space. This narrative complacency means The Rise of Skywalker fails as a stand-alone film, which cannot be the case for any successful sequel.
For the viewer striving to figure out what’s going on, the action is remarkably uninvolving. All those fights with laser sabers, the inter-galactic space ship chases, and so on, feel like a pointless mishmash. When we pause for a little character development the dialogue is so pedestrian one begins to look forward to the next empty action sequence. As usual, the Wookiee gets all the best lines: “uugggh, errmmh”. The costumes, the funny-looking aliens, the claptrap about The Force and the Sith… it all feels so tired. And looks so plastic.
It’s not just Carrie Fisher that returns from the dead via digital wizardry. Just about everyone who was ever retired from the saga gets to be briefly resurrected – which is presumably the way Abrams conveys ‘The Sense of an Ending’, to use a phrase made famous by literary critic, Frank Kermode.
None of this will disturb the real Star Wars fanatics. The franchise has become a decadent, First World subculture that allows people to enjoy a little harmless fantasy at the price of switching off one’s brain and abandoning any sense of what makes a great movie. If an entire planet is destroyed by a ray beam (again), this is just a piece of fun. Très amusant!
Martin Scorsese recently copped flak from the pop culture groupies for claiming that superhero movies and franchise films weren’t cinema. Of course these movies are cinema but they are a form of cinema in which any hint of artistry has been dissolved in a formula as corrosive as hydrochloric acid. Success at the box office has become a reliable indicator not of quality, but of industrial-grade cynicism. What’s most disturbing is the blind willingness of paying customers to keep frequenting and supporting these movies. Many of the fans will confess their disappointment in The Rise of Skywalker and Cats, but one suspects they’ll be back next weekend, shelling out for something just as bad.
Star Wars: The Rise of Starwalker
Directed by J.J.Abrams
Written by Chris Terrio & J.J.Abrams, after a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio, J.J.Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels, Richard E. Grant, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o
USA, rated M, 142 mins
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by Lee Hall & Tom Hooper, after poetry by T.S.Eliot, and the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Starring Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Laurie Davidson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Naoimh Morgan
UK/USA, rated G, 110 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 January, 2020