It’s interesting times when the dead speak and the third highest December opening of ever is still mildly disappointing for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ostensible finale to the Skywalker saga begun 42 years ago. Indeed, Star Wars: Episode IX posted what genuinely is an astounding box office number this weekend, with early estimates pegging it to have earned $176 million domestically over three days, with a $373.5 million take worldwide.
This tally is on the lower end, but still within, Disney’s projections, which set the floor at $160 million. However, the industry itself was not so eager to lower expectations that far, with the general tracking being between $170 million and $200 million domestically. And as early as Saturday morning, it still looked like the film could gross $190 million this weekend before it settled for less than $180 million in the end.
This is, again, the third highest grossing opening of any December release on record, and a terrific debut for a Yuletide blockbuster that will play well past the holidays and into February 2020. With that said, the number is also sizably behind the last two Star Wars “Episode” movies in the Skywalker Saga. For comparison, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to a dizzying $248 million in 2015, which was the then-biggest opening of all time. While Star Wars: The Last Jedi did not replicate that record shattering trick, it still grossed well north of $200 million with a total of $220 million.
The fact Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is opening below both of those numbers shows a notable decline of interest in the franchise among moviegoers who, at the very least, aren’t as universally compelled to uproot their holiday plans to see this movie as soon as possible. The sliding openings among all three movies, in fact, suggests a troubling sign for Disney and Lucasfilm’s ability to maintain excitement for the Star Wars universe. For comparison, Disney’s Marvel Studios continues to shatter records regularly, with Avengers: Infinity War besting The Force Awakens’ opening with $258 million and then its purported “finale,” Avengers: Endgame, earning a staggering $357 million during its opening weekend.
This (slightly) diminishing return will cause a fair amount of hand-wringing, especially among the Star Wars fandom, which has become notorious in recent years for its divided reaction to the previous movie, The Last Jedi. If one only spent time on Twitter or Reddit, one might assume Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most blasphemous film ever made, ruining childhoods by the millions. However, while that movie clearly did disappoint some audiences, the notion that its subversive take on the galaxy far, far away killed interest in Star Wars is partially misleading. After all, The Rise of Skywalker still earned an impressive $176 million this weekend as a sequel to The Last Jedi, and after Solo: A Star Wars Story flopped in 2018 with an anemic $84 million opening. In other words, if The Last Jedi “ruined” Star Wars for general moviegoers, they would just as likely stay away en masse from Skywalker as they did with Solo.
More noticeable is the general divisiveness The Rise of Skywalker is stoking all on its own among critics and moviegoers. Whereas that Rian Johnson movie was enthusiastically embraced by most critics—it has a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes—The Rise of Skywalker was not, earning a rotten score of 58 percent. Our own Don Kaye was displeased with a movie that he called a corporate product without its own voice. “A parade of beloved characters walking through and waving as well-remembered scenes are re-enacted around them is not a story, but a pantomime.”
This general consensus that writer-director of The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. Abrams, attempted to course correct from The Last Jedi by pandering to fans with a “greatest hits” approach turned off roughly half the critics. And it also has noticeably turned off a number of casual moviegoers whose word of mouth is more mixed this time around. Ignoring fanboy-skewed online polls, CinemaScore remains a reliable industry standard for tracking word-of-mouth sentiment among moviegoers on opening weekend. In the past, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi earned an “A” CinemaScore by audiences polled during opening weekend, as did Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This showed word-of-mouth was enthusiastic for the target demographics.
Conversely, The Rise of Skywalker earned a less enthusiastic “B+.” While that is not a terrible score, “B+” is generally considered disappointing by studios as it suggests audiences themselves were mildly disappointed and that there will be a lack of recommendations as a result. Generally, movies with long legs at the box office tend to earn an “A” or “A+” CinemaScore, while a “B+” signals a frontloaded opening… such as Sunday numbers causing a film’s estimates being lowered throughout the weekend.
This is not to say that The Rise of Skywalker should be viewed as a box office disappointment. It still opened at a gross many blockbusters would envy as a total domestic run, and above the very well regarded Rogue One, which debuted at $155 million. The Rise of Skywalker is still on track to make $1 billion worldwide. Nevertheless, its lower opening suggests a continuing trend of disengagement among Star Wars fans, and its mixed reception, both critically and among moviegoers, suggests this may be regarded as the least popular non-Solo Star Wars movie of the Disney era. Considering this franchise’s storied legacy as the paterfamilias of modern blockbuster culture, these numbers put Disney and Lucasfilm in an interesting place going forward as they plot a Star Wars universe sans Skywalkers going forward.