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Why The Rise of Skywalker blew everyone away at the box office

Contains spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker

After spending two years away from the main Star Wars sequel trilogy, fans boarded their X-wings, climbed inside the Millennium Falcon, and hopped atop their orbaks for another trip to the galaxy far, far away — the last one they'd take within the nine-film Skywalker saga. 

Writer-director J.J. Abrams Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hit theaters on December 20, with Thursday-night previews beginning on December 19, and experienced an impressive opening weekend. The film — which stars sequel trilogy leads Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver as the troubled First Order defender Kylo Ren — pulled in $175.5 million domestically from Thursday evening to Sunday morning. Overseas, The Rise of Skywalker lightsaber-swung its way to $198 million during the same time frame. These figures combined bring The Rise of Skywalker's opening weekend bow to $373.5 million worldwide, earning it the accolades of the third-best opening weekend ever amongst films released in December and the third-highest U.S. film debut of 2019.

A first-weekend take-home of that size does make The Rise of Skywalker the lowest-earning entry in the Star Wars sequel trilogy — 2015's The Force Awakens earned $529 million worldwide, while 2017's The Last Jedi scored $450 million 'round the globe — but it's still an undeniably massive debut. As Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian put it, "Though Skywalker opened to less than its two predecessors, the film is helping to spearhead a late year box office surge that has knocked the year-to-date deficit down to under 5 percent for the first time in months" (via CNBC). He also noted that The Rise of Skywalker "should have solid playability into 2020 and could become Disney's seventh $1 billion film released in 2019."

As a Star Wars movie — and one marketed as the definitive conclusion of the Skywalker saga that began 42 years ago – The Rise of Skywalker was bound to perform well financially. What's particularly remarkable here is that the film had a number of odds stacked against it, making its $373.5 million worldwide opening all the more magnificent. Here's why The Rise of the Skywalker blew us away at the box office.

Hype for the Skywalker-saga-ending film was real

In the time leading up to the late December launch of The Rise of Skywalker, the air in and around the Star Wars fandom was thick with anticipation and thrumming with excited chatter... that grew increasingly louder as the days went on, finally turning into a collective roar heard across the globe. People were stoked about returning to the galaxy far, far away for the final installment of the Skywalker series, and they were vocal about their feelings.

There were many reasons to get hyped up for The Rise of Skywalker: the promise that it would round out characters' arcs, the prospect of learning the truth about lingering mysteries (more on those later), and the thought of finally seeing how J.J. Abrams followed up Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi are but a handful of them. With each new Rise of Skywalker trailer that Disney and Lucasfilm revealed — including the first one, which was viewed over 111 million times in 24 hours — fans flocked to social media to share their unfiltered thoughts about what they had just seen. The hashtags #StarWars and #TheRiseofSkywalker trended countless times on Twitter, and even before fans ever glimpsed a second of footage from the film, the ever-popular forum site Reddit was overflowing with posts of alleged leaked plot details and intricate fan theories speculating what would go down in The Rise of Skywalker.

The Star Wars fandom is an intense and passionate one, and after having been split in half following the debut of the highly divisive The Last Jedi, diehards let themselves get swept up in the pre-release period ahead of The Rise of Skywalker's debut. Palpable eagerness flowed through the fanbase for months, and when late October 2019 rolled around, all that potential energy finally turned kinetic. 

The Rise of Skywalker broke pre-sale ticket records

When Disney and Lucasfilm announced that tickets for The Rise of Skywalker would be available for purchase starting on October 21, the internet practically collapsed in on itself. Digital ticket retailers like Fandango and Atom Tickets actually did experience a minor implosion when advance tickets for The Rise of Skywalker went on sale, as the sites experienced an incredible influx of traffic of fans trying to secure their seats for the film as quickly as possible. The result was a whole lot of tickets sold and a number of records broken.

In just one hour, The Rise of Skywalker beat out Atom Tickets' then-highest advance ticket seller Avengers: Endgame, then went on to become the retailer's second-best-selling film of all time. (Marvel Studios' behemoth Endgame still holds that record at Atom Tickets.) The flick also outsold its immediate predecessor, The Last Jedi, by more than double.

The Rise of Skywalker smashed sales records over on Fandango as well: the film sold more advance tickets than any other Star Wars film that came before it, and was the number-one ticket seller on October 21, comprising over half of all tickets sold throughout the entire day. The site's managing editor, Erik Davis, said at the time that the enormous presale day reflected extreme excitement for the film: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is blasting through all current and upcoming new releases, with massive presales on Fandango. Film fans are excited to see what's in store for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren and the rest of their favorite Star Wars characters in this final chapter of the Skywalker saga, especially with director J.J. Abrams at the helm."

When it touched down in cinemas, The Rise of Skywalker wound up taking home $40 million in preview showings in the U.S. (the fifth-highest Thursday pull in the country), then earned $90 million domestically on Friday. It's likely that the majority of the money The Rise of Skywalker yielded on Thursday, December 19 — as well as a portion of the revenue it earned on Friday, December 20 — came from these advance ticket sales.

Negative reviews for The Rise of Skywalker didn't keep moviegoers away

While audiences don't always agree with them, critics have an important job to do: assess the perceived merits and downfalls of a film, then post their evaluations in a professional review online. Reviews, the vast majority of which are published a few days if not weeks before the a movie's theatrical launch, allow fans to get a general sense of whether a film is worth seeing. If a flick is garnering almost nothing but terrible reviews, moviegoers tend to stay away. If a pic is pulling in glowing recommendation after glowing recommendation, it's all the fuel viewers need to race to theaters on opening day. Critical reviews serve as a sort of barometer, measuring the quality of a movie so that people can save and spend their time and money wisely. 

In the case of The Rise of Skywalker, both initial reactions and full-length reviews for the film were wildly mixed. Some slammed the movie as a hodgepodge mess of fan service and poor storytelling decisions, while others praised it as a the perfect conclusion to the Skywalker saga that capped everything off with twists, turns, and heartwarming moments. The first day reviews went live (Wednesday, December 18), The Rise of Skywalker was clocking in at under 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — certified "rotten" by the aggregator's standards. In most instances, this would turn people away. After all, why would they run the risk of hating the movie instead of loving it, when they could just as easily see something else they know they'd enjoy?

But this didn't happen with The Rise of Skywalker, and its opening weekend numbers prove that. People still headed out in droves to see the film — and not just on Thursday night and not only the ones who purchased advance tickets, as the box office breakdown shows tons of money made on Friday and Saturday as well. Negative reviews didn't keep moviegoers from witnessing The Rise of Skywalker for themselves, making the film a rare one that people actually wanted to see despite many critics loathing it to its core. The fact that The Rise of Skywalker earned nearly $374 million even after some critics called it "the worst Star Wars [movie] ever" is certainly mind-blowing.

The Rise of Skywalker's poor box office performance in China didn't impact it in the grand scheme

Another obstacle The Rise of Skywalker faced came during its opening weekend: poor box office dividends in China. The film earned just $1.6 million USD ($11.6 million in Chinese Renminbi) on Friday, December 19, and barely cracked the top five best-performing movies for the day — coming in fourth place behind local hits Ip Man 4: The Finale, Sheep Without a Shepherd, and Only Cloud Knows (via The Hollywood Reporter).

History has shown that Star Wars films don't drum up big audiences or very much cash in the country given that the original trilogy movies didn't receive wide releases there, but it was nonetheless troubling to hear that The Rise of Skywalker was on track to crash and burn in China, as many wondered how it would fare in other international territories. 

Thankfully, the answer was "quite well." The Rise of Skywalker pulled in $198 million from 52 markets, according to Deadline, with the United Kingdom leading the way with $26.8 million earned. Other overseas territories where the Skywalker-saga-ender picked up some hefty stacks of cash include Germany (with $21.8 million), France ($15.2 million), Japan ($14.6 million), and Australia ($12.6 million). 

The Rise of Skywalker answered big questions

Arguably the largest draw of The Rise of Skywalker, and one of the top reasons why the film has impressed at the box office, is that it finally gives clear-cut answers to questions fans have been asking for years. The Rise of Skywalker explains who Rey's parents really are (her father was the son of Emperor Palpatine and her mother wasn't anyone of significance, making her the granddaughter of the Sith Lord); gives a send-off to the late Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa (she dies after using all her strength to send a Force message to her son Kylo Ren, the former Jedi trainee who defected to the dark side); addresses where Kylo Ren's personal arc goes (he gets redemption by rejecting the First Order, reclaiming his birth name of Ben Solo, helping Rey defeat Palpatine, and sacrificing his life to save hers); and reveals who the rising Skywalker is (it's Rey, who declares her full name as "Rey Skywalker" at the end of the film). 

Even if a moviegoer isn't pleased with the truth that a flick presents, they're better off knowing the answers than spending any more time without clarity and closure. Short of reading spoilers online (which isn't the ideal mode of information consumption), the only way to find out what happens in The Rise of Skywalker is to actually see the film — and the fact that the movie answered a handful of burning questions in its runtime can't be overlooked as a contributing factor for its mammoth opening weekend.