What to Watch (and Skip) In Theaters and on Netflix This Weekend

December 19, 2019, 12:00 AM UTC
Cats: Universal Studios; The Witcher: James Minchin—Netflix; Star Wars: Jonathan Olley—Lucasfilm Ltd.

Whether you’re standing in the theater lobby or curled up in bed, deciding what to watch next is often the most difficult part of any pop-culture junkie’s day. And with dozens of films in theaters on any given weekend, plus virtually endless layers of streaming purgatory to sort through in search of your next binge-watch, there’s more out there—and tougher decisions to make—than ever.

Fortune’s here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling all the entertainment out there down into three distinct recommendations: should you see it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.

SEE IT: ‘Cats’ (In theaters)

What you have to understand about Cats is that it’s certifiably insane, from its Jellicle whiskers to the tip of its Jellice tail. I’m referring here to the beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical, one of Broadway’s longest-running, as much as Tom Hooper’s gleefully demented movie adaptation. From day one, Cats has been one of the strangest megahits in any storytelling medium; it’s necessary to know this, and accept this, before reading any further.

Describing the plot of Cats makes you feel like you’re on bath salts (though not as much as does seeing it play out on screen), but the broad strokes are essentially this. Over the course of one night in an unnamed, eerily empty neighborhood, a group of cats take turns introducing one another—with names like Rum Tum Tugger and Mr. Mistoffeelees—as they debate which one of them will get to die, ascending to another plane of existence known as the Heaviside Layer, where they’ll be reborn into a new life. As a story, it’s pure fever dream, the kind of thing even Roald Dahl’s editor wouldn’t have let him get away with; but the strange non-plot of Cats functions, in a theatrical setting, as an ideal delivery system for visual splendor and powerhouse vocals.

Hooper’s tackled musicals before, notably in 2012’s Les Miserables, where he spent 158 minutes on extreme close-ups of France’s most impoverished, and he fully throws himself into the task of translating Cats, a much more experimental piece of work, to the screen. There’s a newly created audience surrogate, Victoria (newcomer Francesca Hayward), who’s tossed via burlap sack into the neighborhood of the Jellicles, a tribe of cats on the eve of making their “Jellicle choice.” Across the sung-through story, she meets a mewling menagerie of contenders for said choice, including bumbling Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), stately Gus the Theatre Cat (Ian McKellen), and portly Bustopher Jones (James Corden), plus the aforementioned Mistoffeelees (a gawky Laurie Davidson), and Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo, who sings and simpers gamely but seems to be missing a little something). Presiding over all is Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench and, no, I don’t know who named these cats), who’ll enjoy the festivities then select the lucky (?) feline in question.

The real draw of Cats involves seeing the all-star cast, which also includes pop sovereign Taylor Swift and vocal legend Jennifer Hudson (who gets to belt out “Memory,” the production’s lone showstopper), made over with the help of CG effects, called “digital fur technology” (though it’s basically just expensive deepfakery), into cat-human hybrids. The effect is deeply upsetting; though the actors are covered in fur and sporting twitchy tails, their proportions are still human, so the actors appear discomfitingly sensual while dancing and serenading one another. They have cat ears, but also human teeth; whiskers, but also fingernails. Some wear jumpsuits, while others go for a more paw-naturel look; the movie directs attention to the strange sense of faux-nudity that results by having Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity wear a hat and fur coat (which begs questions we shouldn’t dare to ask) but later make a surprise scene entrance after disrobing, to which the other cats react with a fairly hypocritical degree of horror.

In watching this digital fur extravaganza at work, entranced by the sheer scale of its visual chaos, I found myself wondering what else Hooper and his team could have done. The tactic most employed by Disney, the imperial overlord Universal’s bravely going up against with this freaky little musical (note this week’s skip it), has been to pursue photorealism in its animated productions. Earlier this year, it turned The Lion King into an uncanny-valley catastrophe, sapping the story of all emotional and dramatic resonance in the process. People simply did not want to hear human voices coming out of the mouths of Planet Earth lions, which is very understandable. Hooper’s techniques with Cats, through which his furry creations sing and dance maniacally into their versions of heaven or hell, bring the whole affair closer to Gaspar Noe’s Climax by way of The Aristocats. While Cats is by no means going to be a guaranteed hit with the little ones, who may be terrified by it or confused by its sexuality, it’s an absolutely unhinged piece of blockbuster filmmaking, worth beholding in all its tawdry, queer, bombastic glory.

It’s the kind of risk studios just don’t take any more, perhaps much more of one than executives ever intended it to be. The film cost some $100 million to pull off, and the amount of uncertainty Cats brings with it into the multiplex—did those oh-my-god-they-actually-did-it trailers turn people off, or the opposite?—makes it the most exciting box-office curiosity left in the calendar year. Will it break records or bomb? The experience of watching Cats—howls of stunned laughter from many, with a few Swifties cheering her grand entrance and the majority of us struggling to even once pick our jaws up off the floor—is one of the most strange and mind-melting you’re likely to have in a theater when it comes to studio content of this size and scope. I’d recommend going for much for the same reason the play’s stuck around so long—whether it’s a masterpiece or one of the worst things you’ve ever seen, it’s resolutely its own thing, a deranged freak-fantasia worth falling into for a couple of hours, if just to say you did. That is to say, it’s Cats.

STREAM IT: ‘The Witcher’ (Netflix)

Netflix’s latest original-series gamble is aiming for Game of Thrones-level complexity in its sketching of a dark-fantasy realm where mythical creatures lie in wait but monarchal power struggles loom just as large.

And based on its first season, The Witcher (adapted from the beloved book series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski) is well on its way. Comprising eight episodes, a smaller number which clearly allowed showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to focus on thoughtfully tracing an ambitious array of story arcs, the series hangs around the impossibly broad shoulders of Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill, great at veining these strong-and-silent types with a gallows humor).

A stone-faced loner who roams the dangerous Continent in search of monsters to slay, Geralt is no hero, and he’s often perilously close to going over the edge in his bloodletting. The character’s most distinguished by his unwillingness to diverge from his own moral compass by getting involved in court politics. In this, he’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s tumbleweed-drifting Man with No Name or Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, a sword in hand rather than a revolver. But Geralt’s on a path toward destiny, as protagonists in high-fantasy fare such as this often are, and he’s soon to become entwined in the fates of two distinctly powerful women. There’s Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), in training to become a powerful sorceress at a mysterious academy, and Ciri (Freya Allen), a young princess in hiding after her kingdom was ransacked and her parents slain. All three characters are afforded their own storylines, weaving their way across the Continent and finding themselves transformed in a myriad of ways by its darkest, magical elements.

Further detailing the epic, sweeping nature of The Witcher‘s story would be to deprive audiences of unexpected, rather graceful reveals that the scripts tease out in due time. What there is to say about The Witcher is that it represents one of Netflix’s most fully formed forays into genre territory yet. The fights, especially in a cinematic and sprawling pilot, are of a kinetic and impressively top-shelf variety, Cavill’s Geralt moving like a man possessed as he rends flesh from bone and engages in some surprisingly balletic bouts of swordplay. And the production design is similarly well-executed, quickly establishing the Continent as a grungy, bloody landscape for these characters to navigate. But it’s the strength of the storytelling that bodes most well for The Witcher as a new destination for those done licking their wounds after that fateful final run in Westeros.

SKIP IT: ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (In theaters)

… even though you’ll see it

“If this mission fails, it was all for nothing,” characters tell one another throughout Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. That’s popcorn-prose concentrate, the kind of dramatic hyperbole that Star Wars has been coasting on since the very beginning. And while it’s traditionally been a fake-out—there’s always another mission, another battle to be won, even after ones that end with your hero encased in carbonite—such sentiment has never felt as profoundly hollowed out as it does by the end of Rise of Skywalker, a graceless franchise finale about nothing more than missions succeeding that itself feels like a staggering failure of vision, conceptually as well as on basic storytelling fronts.

Director J.J. Abrams’ anxiety in making Rise of Skywalker surely fell along those same all-or-nothing lines. By his own admission, he’s bad at endings, and there was tremendous pressure riding on Abrams to bring home the story of the Skywalker clan, a nine-movie saga that’s never loomed larger in the pop cultural imagination. The Rise of Skywalker may well be the last Star Wars movie to feature the heroes Abrams helped forge in his nostalgic The Force Awakens—Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac)—and it’s almost certain to be the final outing for original cast members the series is now starting to outlive. Carrie Fisher died after shooting her scenes for The Last Jedi, and this entry (once intended to be Leia’s movie in the sense that The Force Awakens was Han’s and The Last Jedi was Luke’s) is to be her last screen credit. This just makes the magnitude of Abrams’s failure all the more devastating. One last adventure? Hardly. In a pivotal entry for the franchise, he chooses not to tell a story, instead drowning the developments this trilogy’s second film put forward in a soupy mess of fan service and stilted, unoriginal plotting.

When The Last Jedi hit theaters two years ago, it offered a thematic depth hitherto unseen in Star Wars movies; in the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson, it tangled head-on with questions of hero worship and inheritance that have always been intrinsic to the galaxy far, far away. But the answers it provided—that one must relinquish the past to chart a future, that our heroes will disappoint us, that the Force is not the lineage of a select but a spiritual energy belonging to all of us—were bold and unexpected. In this, it was a shocking follow-up to The Force Awakens, Abrams’ play-the-hits remake of A New Hope, and ruffled feathers with a small but loud contingent of fans, who disliked the film’s treatment of Luke and focus on supporting characters (the most hated of whom, perhaps not coincidentally given the way these Internet mobs tend to go, were women and minorities).

This is worth mentioning because The Rise of Skywalker feels, more than a film, like a feature-length capitulation to those who disliked what The Last Jedi did with the Star Wars mythos (which was, at the end of the day, to make a real movie with it). Where The Last Jedi zagged, Rise of Skywalker zigs, choppily, back inside the pre-existing template to which Disney and Lucasfilm clearly now believes these movies must adhere. It is in fact comical how frantically it rushes to undo Johnson’s progression of these characters, crowding them unnaturally into the same space to combat criticisms everyone spent too much time apart in the last film and entirely sidelining Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, the series’ first Asian-American lead who was brutally harassed online after The Last Jedi) with so little explanation it feels just as racist and sexist as the chatroom vitriol she was subjected to. The Rise of Skywalker also works overtime to retcon The Last Jedi‘s biggest twists. One deformed bad guy with Force powers is down for the count? Let’s introduce another. The question of Rey’s parentage got answered, unexpectedly, with the revelation her family name didn’t have to matter so much? Well, let’s revisit that actually.

From the first words in its opening crawl (“The dead speak!”) to its final frame, The Rise of Skywalker spends its whole runtime chasing ghosts. As teased by the trailers, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back, for reasons the script scarcely attempts to rationalize, and he brings with him a fleet of Star Destroyers capable of wiping out entire planets in one blast. You thought the First Order was bad? Get ready for the “Final Order.”

That’s truly the order of business in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s a movie slavishly devoted to hitting beats from previous films without basic narrative sense, to the point where it feels less like a natural ending to this franchise and more like bad fanfiction. The only way the characters progress is through ill-advised romantic pairings. One interminable (and ultimately pointless) lightsaber battle takes place amid in the wreckage of a destroyed Death Star. The finale involves outgunned resistance fighters making one last stand to blow up a massive bad-guy space base. Beloved characters are imperiled constantly, but there are no real stakes when even the already-dead ones are back for sizable roles. Familiar desert planets pop up, along with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), for maximum fan pandering.

There’s a real difference between a director and an artist, and nothing demonstrates this better than the massive step down The Rise of Skywalker takes both thematically and visually after The Last Jedi. There’s little by way of distinctive or striking visuals; the entire film is hued a murky blue, with an ill-advised focus on strobe lighting. Furthermore, it’s a Star Wars movie with absolutely nothing under its surface, which is a damning trait for a movie in this franchise. Abrams is a great producer, but his weaknesses as a filmmaker have never been this exposed. In attempting to give a noxious portion of the Star Wars fanbase what they asked for, his finale feels like a cheap and derivative product, the ultimate end-result of Disney’s written-by-committee modus operandi, so craven about resurrecting Star Wars that it comes off like grave-robbing. This is Star Wars broken under the weight of its own importance, eating its own tail for lack of any original voices to better nourish it. It’s nothing short of a tragedy.

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—How some artists are building their careers through Spotify playlists
—As 2019 draws to a close, does the movie star still have a pulse?
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