I’m sure anyone who’s into Star Wars, and many people who aren’t, know of Kenny Baker’s passing. I am about as big a Star Wars fan as a person can be. What is now known as Episode IV was the first movie I ever saw. If you’d like, I can recite the originally trilogy word for word, and I can probably come close on the prequels. I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve watched the movies, but it’s a lot. Obviously, Kenny Baker affected my life very deeply. But, I never met the man. Nor am I the type to pay attention to celebrities, so I don’t even know much of anything about him. So, I’m in no position to write an obituary or a tribute to Kenny Baker. What I can do, however, is write a tribute to his most iconic creation, R2-D2, and offer a heartfelt thank you for his work.
Who is telling us the story in the Star Wars movies? What’s the point of view? Mostly, outside of a classroom, no one considers such questions. Outside of the classroom, there is no need for such questions. That’s not why we go to the movies or watch TV or read books. We seek out the arts to be entertained and emotionally enriched. We don’t need to know how they work, as long as they work. And Star Wars works. It has entertained and emotionally enriched millions, and possibly billions, of people. But, if you’re curious about why it works, I can explain it in an alpha numeric sequence, R2-D2.
R2-D2 is the heart and soul of Star Wars. That might not be immediately obvious since the movies are not about R2-D2. They are about the Skywalker family and the rebellion against the Empire and the struggle between the light side and the dark side of the Force. The best comparison I can think of is The Great Gatsby. Even though that story is about Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway is the heart and soul of that story. That’s because it is Nick that is telling us the story and everything we learn is from his point of view. The same is true of Star Wars and R2-D2.
The original trilogy literally opens with Princess Leia giving the stolen Death Star plans to R2, then R2 and C-3PO escaping. All of the action in Episode IV comes as a direct result of R2’s actions with those plans, and he is involved the entire time. Episodes V and VI are not driven by R2 the same way as Episode IV. But, the droids are still intimately involved in all of the action. And it is R2 who follows the A story, Luke, and 3PO who follows the B story, Han and Leia.
Even though it is not literally the first scene, the prequel trilogy also starts with R2 and how he meets Padme and becomes involved in the story. From the time R2 meets Anakin in Episode I, the two are almost inseparable. The gap in the story between Episodes I and II coincides with R2’s separation from Anakin. R2 is still Padme’s droid at the end of Episode I, and it is Anakin’s story, so it makes sense that R2 would have nothing to tell us until Anakin and Padme reunite. And again in Episode III, Anakin and R2 are almost inseparable.
R2-D2 is the only character that is a witness to all of the main action of all six movies*. And the few scenes where he wasn’t present, C-3PO, R4, Obi Wan or Bail Organa could have easily filled him in. In fact, it’s telling that Bail Organa specifically orders 3PO’s memory erased and not R2’s at the end of Episode III. It’s obvious that Organa wants a witness, someone to remember what happened and tell the story. R2-D2 is clearly the best positioned for the job.
R2 as narrator also shows in the characterizations. R2-D2 is presented well throughout. There might be a little vanity in there, but I think it comes from a better place. It works with his spunky boisterousness. And, he really is a hero, so it’s OK if he brags a bit. c-3PO and R2 are best friends. 3PO is almost R2’s polar opposite, but his fussiness and nervousness are never presented any way but lovingly. Being spunky and boisterous, R2 likes those traits in others. That’s why Han, Chewie and Lando are presented so well throughout. R2 clearly found Jar Jar annoying. He never trusted Palpatine (although it’s hard to say how much of that was hindsight). And, most importantly, R2 has a deep and abiding love for the whole Skywalker family.
R2 loves Anakin and is clearly hurt and puzzled when he become Darth Vader. Their relationship shifts when Vader orders R2 to stay with the ship on Mustafar. R2 is caring and protective with Luke and Leia as only a good friend of their father could be. R2 is almost to the Skywalkers in Star Wars as Alfred is to the Waynes in Batman. Given that almost everyone in the Star Wars universe outside of the Skywalker family treats droids as mere objects, it would be strange that any storyteller other than R2 would present their relationship so affectionately.
The tones of the movies are also consistent with R2-D2 as the narrator. In Episode I, R2 is new to this galaxy changing adventure stuff. He was just a mechanic on the Queen’s ship before the blockade. So, there’s an uncertainty in the early parts of the story telling. Anakin is also just a kid in Episode I. R2 is clearly being a bit indulgent of his best friend with the pod race scene and the destruction of the droid control ship. Episode II is much lighter and more fun. Anakin is coming into his own and falling in love, which makes R2 happy. But, there is a tinge of sadness since R2 knows what’s to come. And R2 is treated more as an equal partner and confidant, which leads to more confident storytelling. Episode III is dark, angry and tragic as R2 watches everything go wrong and is unable to do anything about it. Episode IV is just plain fun. It’s been twenty years of laying low for R2, so he’s clearly thrilled to be part of the action again. Episode V is pretty dark, which is understandable as things don’t go too well for R2 and his friends. And Episode VI is a mix of fun and triumph as fits the end of the Skywalker’s story. Luke and Leia are victorious and Anakin is redeemed. Nothing could make R2 happier.
Going back to The Great Gatsby for a moment, the reason the book works is because Nick is the narrator. Nick is a guy that the readers can identify with and like. If something is important to him, it becomes important to us. If Gatsby were the narrator, the book would be off putting. If Daisy were the narrator, the book would be initially charming, but ultimately vapid. Nick makes the book work because he in engaging and makes us care.
R2-D2 is what makes the Star Wars movies work for the same reason. He’s the only character that the audience likes, identifies with and has the information to tell the whole story. Entertaining movies could have been made from Luke’s or Han’s or Leia’s point of view, but they would have felt incomplete. 3PO or Yoda could have told (mostly) the whole story, but their movies would have been too uptight or too aloof. R2 is the perfect balance, and that’s why he is the MVP of the Star Wars movies.
*I didn’t include Episode VII in this on purpose. One reason is that one of the huge flaws of that movie is the way R2-D2’s character was changed (And Luke’s character and Han’s character for that matter). Another reason is that it is telling a different story that doesn’t seem to focus on the Skywalker family. And the third reason is that the story is so far from complete, there’s no way for me to know how R2 really fits into it.