TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, David Edelstein, has a review of the eighth film in the "Star Wars" series, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." This one stars Felicity Jones as a rebel fighter and features Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: This review of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" is going to be the most cautious I ever deliver. I still have flashbacks of vicious emails I got for what I thought was a very discrete piece on last year's "Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens." There will be no spoilers unless you consider talking about the movie's premise a spoiler. We clear?
"Rogue One" is a stand-alone movie. It's set between George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge Of The Sith" and "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope," which was actually the first "Star Wars" movie from 1977. In this one, the nefarious Empire is building the Death Star, an effective weapon for wiping out secret rebel bases insofar as you can just blow up a whole planet. But the weapon's designer, Galen Erso, played by Mads Mikkelsen, might have qualms and contacts rebel leaders. Those leaders, in turn, accost the inventor's estranged daughter, Jyn, played by Felicity Jones.
What they plan to do, I can't tell you. And what happens then, I can't tell you either. I can tell you that stuff blows up - big stuff and a lot of it. I can also say this - there are many vexing questions in pop culture. Why, for example, was there a handy pail of water for Dorothy to throw at the Wicked Witch of the West? Another is why the all-powerful Death Star had a nook where Luke Skywalker's well-placed bomb could make the whole thing go boom? "Rogue One" answers that question definitively.
The good thing is that, unlike the "Force Awakens," "Rogue One" isn't a beat-by-beat rehash of another of Lucas' plots. Instead, it rehashes the plots of a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron, a Magnificent 7, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five, prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause. The rebels are of various sexes, races and species. There's even a blind Samurai.
The director, Gareth Edwards, does his best to keep the story on track, and he aimed for more realism, more grit, than we're used to in this series. But the first half skips all over the place and isn't very involving. Finally, the rebels transport Jyn, who's not quite their prisoner but has a minder named Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, to a warzone. Their ship's pilot is a reprogrammed and extremely supercilious Imperial droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")
ALAN TUDYK: (As K-2SO) Why does she get a blaster and I don't?
DIEGO LUNA: (As Cassian Andor) What?
FELICITY JONES: (As Jyn Erso) I know how to use it.
LUNA: (As Cassian Andor) That's what I'm afraid of. Give it to me.
JONES: (As Jyn Erso) We're going to Jeddah. That's a war zone.
LUNA: (As Cassian Andor) That's not the point of - where'd you get it?
JONES: (As Jyn Erso) I found it.
TUDYK: (As K-2SO) I find that answer vague and unconvincing.
JONES: (As Jyn Erso) Trust goes both ways.
TUDYK: (As K-2SO) You're letting her keep it. Would you like to know the probability of her using it against you? It's high.
LUNA: (As Cassian Andor) That's get going.
TUDYK: (As K-2SO) It's very high.
EDELSTEIN: That dialogue is funnier when you see it coming from a droid. He really is a pill. This is easily the hippest multinational cast of any "Star Wars" picture. Riz Ahmed of "The Night Of" plays an AWOL Empire pilot and Ben Mendelsohn is an Empire baddie. Forest Whitaker is a rebel leader who's gone off the reservation and Hammer Films legend Peter Cushing is back as the evil Grand Moff Tarkin, which is weird since Cushing has been dead for decades. His head is computer-generated, which I found upsetting. Even Cushing's best-known character, Baron Frankenstein, would blanch at this kind of grave robbing.
The action scenes in "Rogue One" are pretty much just noise with Storm Troopers as casually mowed down as in any video game. But some of the special effects feel fresh, the actors are likable and the scale of the movie is a wow. The last part caught me up. Every character gets his or her big moment and left the preview audience jazzed. The problem with so-called franchise films is that because of future installments, nothing is ever wrapped up, but "Rogue One" has a real ending. I hope you don't think of that as a spoiler - more like an incentive.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "20TH CENTURY WOMEN")
ANNETTE BENING: (As Dorothea) My son was born in 1964.
GROSS: ...My guest will be Mike Mills, the writer and director of the new film "20th Century Women." It stars Annette Bening as a 55-year-old single mother of a 14-year-old son who's into skateboarding and punk rock and is drifting away from her. The film was inspired by Mill's relationship with his mother. The movie is nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture musical or comedy. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.