Machine or Human? The Droids of Star Wars

NOV / DEC 2016: BY JESSICA PRESCOTT

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I can still remember the day my father showed me and my older brother Star Wars:  A New Hope for the very first time. I was about three or four years old, I think; and the three of us sat and watched the movie on a rented VHS tape in a living room which (to my mind) seemed like an enormous palace, but which I now realize was actually quite small.  Such, they tell me, is childhood.

Now, as a four-year-old girl, you might assume that my favorite character from A New Hope would have been Princess Leia.  After all, she’s a princess, and little girls are supposed to like princesses . . . right?

Wrong.

When I saw A New Hope all those years ago, my favorite character was R2-D2. Hands down. No question. And now, close to two decades later, my favorite character in the entire Star Wars universe is still R2-D2.

Looking back, it’s not too hard to understand why four-year-old me felt so strongly drawn to R2. At the time, I was the youngest child in my family—shy, soft-spoken, introverted, uncomfortable around strangers, happiest in familiar surroundings. A droid half the height of the adult humans around him, who communicated through a string of beeps rather than through words, provided something I could truly relate to, in a way that I couldn’t relate to a cocksure smuggler . . . or a wide-eyed wannabe pilot . . . or a beautiful young spitfire.

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Well, I’m not that shy little girl anymore; but when I look at R2-D2 today, I still see much that I can relate to—even emulate. His loyalty. His spunkiness. His strong sense of responsibility. The way that he tends to stay in the background, yet is always there—no matter what—when you need him. To borrow a phrase from our friend Anne Shirley, you might say R2 was (and remains) one of my greatest fictional “kindred spirits.” My love for that little blue-and-white droid is something I can’t fully express in words; but it’s something that will always be with me.

The skeptic, reading this article, will pause at this moment with an ironic smile.  And I know exactly what he’s thinking:  “You can’t call R2-D2 a ‘kindred spirit,’ young lady.  He’s not human.  He’s got no heart or soul.  He’s a robot, for crying out loud.

Well . . . that skeptic had better watch out, as I may or may not be coming after him with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber raised high above my head.  And yet, I have to admit he’s brought up a valid point:  Why do Star Wars fans in general—not just myself—form such strong emotional attachments to the robots in the story, to droids like C-3P0, R2-D2, and now BB-8?  If they’re mere machines who simply do whatever they’re programmed to do, why do we love them so much?

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I believe the answer to this question lies in one simple fact:  We don’t see these characters as ‘mere machines.’  Whether we realize it or not, we see these droids as living beings with warm hearts just like ours—hearts which shine through in moments like BB-8’s little ‘thumbs-up’ to Finn in The Force Awakens, R2-D2 flipping Luke his lightsaber at a critical point in Return of the Jedi, C-3P0’s constant, adorable fussing and complaining throughout the entire series, or (my personal favorite) R2 sassing C-3P0 seconds after his sudden awakening from a sleep which probably lasted over a decade.  We see these acts as expressions of the same kind of courage, loyalty, friendship, and selflessness which we, as humans, know we should all aspire to . . . even though we often fall short.

And while someone could certainly make the argument that the Star Wars droids embody these virtues solely because they’ve been programmed to serve their masters at all times, the plain fact is, no Star Wars fan truly believes that statement.  Deep down inside, we all believe that R2-D2 follows “Master Luke” with such dogged, stubborn devotion for the same reason any of us would—because he genuinely loves Luke, not because he is a helpless automaton with no choice in the matter.  In our minds, then, R2 and his fellow droids have become human . . . yes, every bit as human as we ourselves are.

Are they really human?  In a word, no.  But does that matter?  Not at all.

Because the Star Wars films (like all books and movies) are ultimately works of the imagination, what matters most is not the objective ‘truth’ about the characters contained therein, but, rather, our subjective and personal interpretation of those characters.  Because the ‘real’ R2-D2 exists only in the minds of his creators and his audience, if we in the audience choose to imagine him as human, no one can tell us we’re wrong.  This is perhaps the greatest beauty of fiction:  Unlike reality, it can be shaped by the power of our own minds.

To me, the droids of Star Wars are human, and they always will be.  And now, if you’ll excuse us . . . R2-D2 and I must go.  Luke Skywalker is calling.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies.  In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels.  Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous.  Someday . . . 

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6 Replies to “Machine or Human? The Droids of Star Wars”

  1. Jessica: I cannot say I in any way identified with R2-D2, but he’s also my favorite droid. He cracks me up. His little blurps and beeps and especially his “scream” (which I love to recreate for my cat’s amusement when things get wild) won over my heart. Plus, he doesn’t talk constantly, unlike Someone Else in the franchise. (BB-8 is so freaking cute, tho. Aww.)

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    1. I love BB-8–he’s so cute 🙂 I don’t think I really relate to him the way I do to R2; but he’s definitely pretty high up there on my list of favorite Star Wars characters.

      I do find, in general, I tend to relate better to characters who (like R2) don’t talk much, or who are completely silent . . . for instance, my absolute favorite character in “Tangled” is Pascal, who doesn’t make a single noise throughout the entire movie.

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      1. I’m not sure I ever relate to characters much — at least, not on a level I’m aware of. I either admire them, or like something about them, or enjoy them.

        Pascal is hilarious. I can see why you like him.

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      2. I wonder if that’s a factor in your tending to like villains so much? You don’t relate to them, either, but that’s okay–you’re not *trying* to relate to them. For you, that’s not really the point.

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        1. I usually understand villains, unless their thinking is so psychotic that there’s no human psychology behind them; but you’re correct, I don’t really relate to anyone, fiction or non.

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