In pop culture, very few robots possess lasting power. A movie might come out or television show which highlights this android or that robot, and for a while, they receive plenty of attention. How many of us recall the waving pincers of The Robot from Lost in Space or the domestic, but attitude endowed, Rosie of The Jetsons fame? It’s a diminishing number to say the least, but of those robots who only continue to rise to the forefront over the decades, few have the recognition which belongs to the blue and white astromech droid, R2-D2.
In the Original Trilogy, R2 or Artoo, begins as the carrier of the film’s McGuffin, the plans of the Death Star, and astonishingly, manages to bring together many of the major characters. His insistence of finding General Obi-Wan Kenobi eventually leads Luke to the old Jedi, and the hologram he carries of Leia is a prime motivator for the moisture farmer to seek out an adventure in the stars – ultimately connecting him to Han Solo and rescuing the aforementioned princess. The droid even manages to be right in the thick of the Battle of Yavin, becoming one of the few surviving casualties of the rebel victory.
Central to Artoo’s initial character is his straight playing friend, C-3PO, the neat freak companion to Artoo’s laid back and rule breaking Odd Couple pairing. As the trilogies proceed, Artoo is actually separated from the golden protocol droid and comes into his own in The Empire Strikes Back. The droid’s own interactions with Yoda and Dagobah in general focused the personality that had slowly emerged courtesy of C-3PO’s constant chastising. But something else also began to happen to the astromech in Empire, the element of Artoo’s character which resembled a rolling Swiss Army Knife.
In A New Hope, Artoo’s abilities played to the demands of what we might perceive an astromech to need: a recording and displaying ability, a small arm to try and fix in-flight problems, and a data port tool. In Empire, we suddenly discover the droid to have a periscope-like eye and a built in fire extinguisher. The former is surprising, the latter still makes some sense, even if the droid creatively uses it as a smoke screen in a hasty retreat on Cloud City. In the following film, Artoo gains the ability to shock small furry bear people, which while understandably satisfying, exists almost entirely for laughs. Likewise, he plays a critical role in Luke Skywalker’s plan (presumably Plan B?) of not just concealing a lightsaber, but firing it up into the air with utmost precision. Additionally, we discover he even contains a small rotary saw, perfect for slicing through vine woven nets. In a sense, this is the beginning of turning the fetishization of R2-D2.
By fetishization, we draw upon the word as a means of worshiping an object because of its magical or mystical abilities. Increasingly within the Prequel Trilogy, Artoo is offered more and more powers, be it high security scanning modes to guard sleeping senators or the power of flight, courtesy of two small rockets which pop out of his leg struts. Bereft of his protocol droid companion for much of the trilogy, Artoo is forced to exhibit his character through these actions that almost universally taken for granted by everyone around him. Given that Artoo’s introduction is in the service of Naboo’s queen in The Phantom Menace, one might even call the Prequel Trilogy an origin story for the droid, but one where the astromech simply problem solves from one point to another. He becomes beloved for what he can do, almost a caricature of the droid from the Original Trilogy. Nonetheless, his popularity remained strong through the release of the Prequel Trilogy films, and to the present day.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Artoo’s involvement in the Prequel Trilogy which colors the droid’s character in the Original Trilogy, and not for the good. Best laid out by Da7e Gonzales on Geek.com, “R2-D2 is the biggest scumbag in Star Wars,” the main gist involves R2-D2’s sin of omission of major facts concerning the past of Darth Vader, of the Skywalker family, and the Jedi in general. Throughout the Original Trilogy, critical moments occur in which Artoo could have chirped, beeped, or sent a written message to Luke in the cockpit of his X-wing, explaining all these things, but never attempts to do so. The reason for this boils down to the lack of a memory wipe, something which was done to C-3PO at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Why was Artoo granted this clemency? Was it his inability to actually talk in the common language of the universe? Was it a storyteller’s decision to view the droid as some kind of reservoir of the history the films, a rolling Red Book of Westmarch on wheels a la Middle Earth and the Lord of the Rings? Or perhaps, Artoo the character had become something less, a droid with a dozen gadgets, built to entertain and less the robot that inspired gasps of fear and concern when shot in the trench of the Death Star.
R2-D2 remains now and will undoubtedly remain one of the most popular robots of all time, even if a feisty orange and white droid is pressing hard to challenge him for the top astromech spot in the Star Wars universe. Perhaps future stories will work to bring Artoo more into focus as the droid we all fell in love with in A New Hope, and perhaps, someone will come along and within the canon building realm of the Expanded Universe, tweak that one thing, which addresses why Artoo isn’t a scumbag after all. After all, as Da7e Gonzales put it, one memory wipe is all that was needed to avoid the droid becoming “a withholding little poop who knows the complete history of the Skywalker line but decides to tell no one.” It’s never too late to see beyond the gadgets and remember that lovable blue and white droid we first met next to a kneeling princess.