When the very first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens released in November 2014, it revealed very little, focusing on only offering brief glimpses of new main characters who will carry the saga going forward in its next trilogy. Of these new icons, a ball-shaped droid earned much of the attention.
Was this new orange colored droid, with a familiar face but a never-before-seen design, be replacing the lovable R2-D2? After R2’s essential role in the original six movies, even appearing in many episodes of the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, would Lucasfilm really be pushing him aside? The “soccer ball droid” as some called it was later revealed to be called BB-8 and fans were promised by J.J. Abrams that they would love it. Abrams was right, but so too were fans concerned that Artoo would no longer be the go-to droid. But he was out of the picture for a specific reason.
NOTE: The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars 7
In The Force Awakens BB-8 effectively serves the same role R2-D2 did in Episode IV – A New Hope. BB-8 is carrying vital data that everyone is after, but that the Resistance needs, and is accompanied by heroes, newcomers and veterans alike on the hero’s journey. This new droid even serves as the astromech for the film’s ace pilot, just like Artoo did for Luke against the first Death Star.
So, with BB-8 in the thick of Star Wars 7’s main plot, R2-D2 is hidden away in storage. Literally. The audience is informed through C3PO’s exposition that he’s been in “low power mode” for a very long time. Prior to this sequence, we only see R2-D2 in a series of visions Rey endures after discovering Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. In that scene – a notable one from the trailers – a cloaked Luke Skywalker with a robot hand is seen seemingly comforting the droid. We don’t know if this is an event from the past or something that’s coming up because the Force works in mysterious ways.
Unfortunately, that lack of specificity also seems to apply to the reasoning behind how R2-D2 reactivates at the end of Star Wars 7, conveniently at the perfect moment to distract the characters – and the audience – from the reality that Han Solo just died. R2 had been offline for years yet contains in his memory banks most of the map everyone’s after to find where Luke is. We still don’t know how BB-8 knows R2 has this info, why Luke put said incomplete info on his hard drive, why no one extracted this info from his hard drive, or really anything to do with R2 since Return of the Jedi but he miraculously wakes up at that very moment to allow for the film’s epilogue. R2 and BB-8 combine their map segments and Rey, Chewbacca and R2 head off to meet Luke Skywalker.
This is all just one multi-faceted question of many (see our 15 questions for Episodes VIII and IX here!) that the film leaves unexplained. The writers of the film (J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt) attended a special screening and Q&A yesterday and were asked this very question, how R2-D2 had his own literal “awakening” of sorts right when he did to which Arndt said:
“The whole movie is a series of character introductions. You want all your character introductions to be A-plus. You want to give each person their moment. Even the Millennium Falcon. That was [producer] Bryan Burk’s idea. They’re running to get a ship, it blows up, and you turn and there’s the back-up – the Millennium Falcon.”
Arndt had planned to introduce R2-D2 in the same scene when C-3PO and Leia reunite with Han and Chewie but Kasdan, who returns from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and took over writing duties with J.J. Abrams from Arndt, said these droid introductions should be kept separate. It then all clicked for Arndt, and like Luke’s introduction (explained here), R2’s real appearance serves as delayed gratification.
That all sounds great, but why the hell does he wake up right at the end when he does and how does he have this map info no one else does?
The writers explained during the Q&A that R2-D2 is in this sleep mode because he’s grieving in his own way, just like Luke Skywalker is by hiding himself from the galaxy. And as for the map info, which includes locations on ancient Jedi temples that Luke may be after, Arndt says that’s a call-back to Episode IV, the film that started it all.
“We had the idea about R2 plugging into the information base of the Death Star, and that’s how he was able to get the full map and find where the Jedi temples are.”
In the original Star Wars movie, Luke, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are aboard the Millennium Falcon leaving Tatooine and heading towards Alderaan but are captured by the Death Star’s tractor beam. And while on this station, they take the opportunity to mount a rescue for Princess Leia who’s being held prisoner and during this sequence R2-D2 plugs into the Death Star’s computer systems, gaining access to the Empire’s databases. Abrams says they didn’t spell this out in Episode VII because he didn’t want to spend time detailing events from decades earlier but basically, R2 got the map info there.
This does not however, explain why this info wasn’t shared by R2 previously if it includes unexplored systems the Republic and Resistance are unaware of or why there’s a missing piece that shows up on Jakku. As Abrams also pointed out during the Q&A, Kylo Ren does mention that the First Order has the rest of the map from the Imperial archives as well.
But who made the map to Luke and sent this missing piece to Leia via Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow’s character)? Was this all Luke’s doing?
As for the timely awakening of the classic droid, Abrams says:
“BB-8 comes up and says something to him, which is basically, ‘I’ve got this piece of a map, do you happen to have the rest?’. The idea was, R2 who has been all over the galaxy, is still in his coma, but he hears this. And it triggers something that would ultimately wake him up… While it may seem, you know, completely lucky and an easy way out, at that point in the movie, when you’ve lost a person, desperately, and somebody you hopefully care about is unconscious, you want someone to return.”
There you have it. The reason R2-D2 wakes up is because BB-8 asked a question, one that R2 took a long time to respond to, but does so just at the right time. The logic behind these happenings though, from R2 not doing anything on his own to find Luke to no one just turning R2 on, are all lost in favor of the emotional impact of this character coming in just at the right time. It’s not the perfect answer we suspect fans are looking for but now at least we understand the reasoning behind what the writers of Star Wars 7 did with the character.
And that being said, R2 is no stranger to random plot-dependent conveniences. In the prequels, the astromech droid suddenly had the ability to fly… something he inexplicably cannot do later in the saga.
It’s always possible more will be revealed in the followup movies. R2-D2 does “awaken” after all when Rey and Leia meet during Rey’s first arrival at the Resistance base. Fan theories on this range from R2 bring programmed to activate upon Rey’s arrival (even though Rey and R2 don’t see each other before this) to Luke feeling the loss of Han Solo like Leia did, but also feeling the moment Rey and Leia meet each other which sees Luke activate R2 remotely. These are far-fetched based on what was shown so far, but arguably as far-fetched as the actual explanations.
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The film is directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max Von Sydow. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk are producing with Tommy Harper and Jason McGatlin serving as executive producers. The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.