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'Cats' and 'The Rise of Skywalker' conquer Twitter ahead of their debuts

May the Force be with you, Jellicle cats.
Image: Star Wars, Cats
Lucasfilm; Universal Pictures

When night falls Thursday, one of the most eagerly anticipated motion picture events of the holiday season will hit multiplexes across America: a high-spirited, big-budget, effects-driven, family-friendly adventure that has monopolized social media for months and consumed die-hard fans for roughly 40 years.

The motion picture is "Cats," of course.

But the adaptation of the megapopular musical by Broadway maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber is not the only film vying for box office riches this weekend. You may have heard of the other major contender: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." It's the one about spaceships and laser swords.

The two films — a big-screen take on a song-and-dance phenomenon that first opened in London in 1981 and the final installment in a nine-part sci-fi saga that began in 1977 — were stirring up a frenzy on Twitter ahead of their debuts, especially after the embargo lifted on reviews from major publications.

And yes, about those reviews: "Cats" and "Star Wars" were both drawing mixed-to-negative reactions from critics and viewers lucky enough to catch early screenings. ("Cats" is distributed by Universal Pictures, which like NBC News is a unit of Comcast.)

But bad reviews are not created equal. "Cats" — featuring an ensemble cast that includes Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift — hovered around a paltry 17 percent as of Thursday morning, whereas "The Rise of Skywalker" stood at a healthier (but still technically "rotten") 58 percent.

The reviews of "Cats" were especially savage. Gizmodo's headline, for instance: "I Have Seen Sights No Human Should See."

Twitter users ran wild with the possibilities nonetheless. What if "Cats," the subject of light-hearted mockery since its first trailer dropped, winds up outperforming "Star Wars" among professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes? (Highly unlikely!) What if you saw both films back-to-back? What would happen to your brain?

If you're on the fence about which would-be blockbuster to see, pop culture news website Vulture put together this handy questionnaire. Adam Woodward, an editor at the film magazine Little White Lies, suggested a compromise choice: "Inside Llewyn Davis," a dark comedy from the Coen brothers in which Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron in the "Star Wars" sequels, cares for a cat.

The lukewarm reaction to both movies could be a boon for other projects arriving in theaters in the lead-up to Christmas, as several Twitter users pointed out.

"Bombshell," a docudrama about the Fox News anchors who took a stand against alleged sexual misconduct at the network, and "Little Women," Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the classic novel, might benefit from the tepid responses to the two more high-profile releases.

"The Rise of Skywalker" was expected to gross somewhere between $175 million and $200 million in its opening weekend, according to tracking services cited by The Hollywood Reporter. "Cats," on the other hand, was on track to debut at a relatively modest $14 million to $17 million.

The movies may follow disparate commercial trajectories — but at least in the popular imagination of Twitter, the two are perhaps forever linked.