There’s no arguing that The Force Awakens left audiences with many questions. But whereas some of those questions like “Who are the Knights of Ren?”, “What are Snoke’s origins?”, and “Who are Rey’s parents?” are meant to be answered in future installments of the saga, there seems to be at least one question that fans are asking that might have been raised by accident, despite the intent of the writers. Thankfully, with a little help from some comments from the film’s writers and the film’s novelization by Alan Dean Foster, it’s one question that can actually be easily explained.
If BB-8 is unable to stir R2-D2 to action earlier in the film, what is it in the film’s ending that causes the old astromech to come to life once again to reveal that he has the rest of the map that leads to Luke Skywalker?
After viewing the film a couple of times, I agree that this scene is not presented very clearly on screen. It seems extremely convenient that Artoo awakens when he does, and it isn’t explained in clarity as to why this event occurs at that exact moment. If he had the map, why didn’t he respond to Beebee Ate earlier in the movie?
Many theories have been presented on the subject including but not limited to the following two scenarios:
- Luke senses that he is being sought out and sends a signal or uses the Force to plunge the droid into action at the appropriate time.
- Artoo senses Rey’s presence and (as previously programmed) responds by coming to life and revealing the map for her to follow.
While I love fan theories as much as the next person, I believe the answer to this question is actually very simple, though I do not think it came across on screen as intended. To find the truth, we have to turn to the novelization of the film by Alan Dean Foster. Here is an excerpt from the book:
Located somewhat apart from the swirl of main activity inside the Resistance base, the conference room was perfect for a strategic gathering. Leia was there, as well as Poe, C-3PO, BB-8, a handful of chosen officers, and an assortment of equipment and gear that was considered important but was little used.
Never one to defer in the presence of superiors, Poe spoke first.
“Kylo Ren said that the segment held by Beebee-Ate is the last piece of the map that shows the way to Skywalker’s location. So, where’s the rest of it?”
“The First Order has it.” Rey looked over at him. “They extracted it from the Imperial archives.” Poe stared at her. “The Empire?”
Admiral Statura nodded in agreement. “It makes sense. The Empire would have been looking for the first Jedi temples. In destroying all the Jedi sanctuaries they would have acquired a great deal of peripheral information.”
So intent were they on the current conversation and its possible ramifications that no one noticed that a light had come on atop a small R2 unit shoved back among the rest of the equipment in the room. Nor did they see that its hemispherical head had turned to look in their direction.
“We’re still at war with First Order,” Leia pointed out. “A war that won’t end until either it or the Resistance is destroyed. The next time, without Luke, we won’t stand a chance.”
The silence that ensued was broken by a flurry of beeping and whistling the likes of which the somber gathering had not heard in some time. In the case of this particular beeping and whistling, not in years.
No one was more surprised than C-3PO when R2-D2 came rolling forward to join the assembly.
“Artoo! What—what is it? I haven’t seen you this functional since—” He was interrupted by a fresh farrago of beeping that all but drowned him out. “Slow down! You’re giving me data overload!” Whether the mechanical hand that rose to the side of the golden head to indicate a headache truly reflected what the protocol droid was feeling or was simply a gesture for the benefit of watching humans, only C-3PO knew.
An excited Leia moved closer. Of all the organics in the room, no one had a more personal relationship to the little droid than she did.
“What’s he saying?” she asked.
The protocol droid explained. “If the information you are seeking was in the Imperial archives, he believes he may have catalogued that data. He’s scanning through it now.”
Rey stared at the diminutive droid. “Artoo has the rest of the map?”
“He’s certainly implying the possibility!” C-3PO told her. “I’ve never heard him beep with this much energy before.”
Emitting a long, sustained whistle, R2-D2 projected a full three-dimensional image of a huge navigational star chart. No one in the room could fail to notice that it was missing a substantial fragment. In response to the hovering image, BB-8 began beeping excitedly.
Entertainment Weekly also posted an article a couple of days after the premiere of the film about this very same question. At a post-screening Q&A, the writers of the film (J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt) explained the reasoning behind Artoo’s awakening. Although they didn’t explain exactly why Artoo came alive when he did at that precise moment in the final moments of the film (this is where the novel comes in), they did provide some clues as to how Artoo came to possess the map in the first place and what exactly jump-started Artoo on his road to recovery.
Michael Arndt on how R2-D2 obtained the map from the Imperial archives:
“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.”
J.J. Abrams concerning Artoo’s recovery:
“But the idea was that in that scene where R2 plugged in, he downloaded the archives of the Empire, which was referenced by Kylo Ren.”
“BB-8 comes up and says something to [R2-D2], 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.”
It is clear to me from reading the writers’ comments and the scene as depicted in the novel, that Artoo, after being stirred to life by Beebee Ate earlier in the film, hears Rey and Statura talking about the map being found in the Imperial archives in the film’s final moments and realizes that he could actually be of use in finding his old master. After returning to full exuberant life, the little droid explains all of this to Threepio and searches his memory for the map to the first Jedi temple in the Imperial archives that he catalogued decades ago.
Ultimately, the scene was intended to make Artoo’s introduction into the film as dramatic as possible, and in light of further explanation, does actually make sense, although it is unfortunate that the scene doesn’t come across as intended on screen. Abrams previously stated that Kasdan had instructed him that the best approach to storytelling was to – “Trust the audience. Trust the characters and that the audience will feel more, in a way, the less you explain the stuff to them.”
Although this approach works for most of the film, generally taking full advantage of the medium with the intent of “showing” as opposed to “telling”, maybe there are still some situations, like this one, that would have benefited from some exposition. Maybe he trusted his audience a little too much in this case. But alas, that burning question has been resolved…now on to the deeper and more pertinent questions…