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?