Counterparts are Family: Droids and the Buddy Film in Star Wars

At the heart of genre cinema, the buddy film is one of those sub-genres which ranks supreme. On the surface, the genre presents a variety of friendships. However, within the world of Star Wars, the stories tend to be based around one, or several, pre-established friendships. The relationships presented in these films had already existed prior to the start of the film. Furthermore, the buddies themselves are more like family than friends. In essence, the relationships often have a familial tone. As a result, these live-long friendships become a driving force for the story’s overall arc, and the very concept becomes a tool to connect a film with its audience.

Upon close examination of George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), in addition to its subsequent sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, it is quite clear that the sub-genre of the buddy film is responsible for connecting fantasy and reality. In layman’s terms, a Star Wars story works best when its audience can relate to and create a subconscious bond with the characters. The use of pre-established friendships makes the fantasy elements more realistic and, thus, more relatable. Above all, the relationship between the franchise’s two most iconic characters, C-3PO and R2-D2, best illustrate and represent Star Wars during its finest hours. The two droids set the precedent for what makes the series quintessential within the realms of cinema, science fiction, and pop culture in general.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars was unleashed onto the world. Within minutes of its first act, the audience was introduced to a galactic civil war, a space princess, an evil empire, and two bickering droids. Those two droids, ‘3PO and R2, are the first characters who the audience interacts with on an emotional level. It is through them that much of the film world’s concepts are explored. ‘3PO and R2 are responsible for pushing the plot’s momentum in the first Star Wars film. Without them, Luke Skywalker does not blow up the Death Star. Without them, the Rebellion is crushed by the hands of the Empire. Essentially, whilst the droids, and the Death Star plans they carry, appear to be a type of MacGuffin lifted from Hitchcock; they are in fact vital to establishing what will become the narrative arc that is the Star Wars saga. The buddy aspect of the droids’ relationship allows the audience to enter the richly built universe with greater ease. They serve as tour guides for the galaxy far, far away. Thus, from the get-go, ‘3PO and R2 are the thread and needle of Star Wars.

Within seconds of their introduction, the audience is already aware of the friendship between the two droids. Primarily, their vibrant history is established vis-à-vis dialogue and what many would consider to be throw-away lines. However, upon further examination of those said lines; it can be concluded the protocol droid and astromech have known each other for years. For example, upon the Star Destroyer’s attack of the Tantive IV, ‘3PO tells R2, “the princess won’t escape this time.” It is implied that the ongoing attack is not the first time these droids have found themselves in such a situation, nor is it the first time they have fought alongside Princess Leia. Minutes into the beginning of the Star Wars saga, there is already a grand history supporting the story’s heroes.

The droids’ history is an aspect commonly found in buddy films. The introduction of two friends in such a sub-genre usually begins with the strong connotation that they have been buddies for a long time. In the context of Star Wars, the buddies in question are two non-human lifeforms. Yet, they are considerably the most relatable characters in the entire franchise. That is, they are more human than the human protagonists. Their respective personalities are highlighted from the very beginning. ‘3PO is a protocol droid that is uptight and filled with a great amount of anxiety, yet also extremely polite and well-intentioned. On the other end of the spectrum, R2 is an astromech who is feisty, independent, and often comes across as rude but helpful. As a result, these distinct personalities allow their coupled interactions to play off as a buddy film. Above all, the use of that genre allows the audience to enter the Star Wars universe with greater ease. The humanistic relationship between the bickering droids is a guiding hook, and it makes the many alien worlds feel like contained versions of our own.

That being said, the idea of two bickering droids who simultaneously love and hate one another is far more relatable (and absorbent) than the Jedi religion, space travel, or extra-terrestrial jazz bands. The dynamic between ‘3PO and R2 is comparable to a variety of friendships commonly found within the sub-genre of the buddy film. The droids cannot stand one another, but they also cannot live without each other. For example, upon landing on the desert planet of Tatooine, the two droids decide to go their separate ways. ‘3PO heads off to search for a form of transportation that can get him back to the Rebellion. Whereas R2 goes off to complete the mission given to him by Princess Leia earlier aboard the Tantive IV. ‘3PO scolds his friend and tells him: “I’ve just had enough of you. Go that way… you’ll be functioning within a day, you

near-sighted scrap pile! And don’t let me catch you following me, begging for help,

because you won’t get it!”

As the two depart, R2 turns his head around to see if ‘3PO has changed his mind. He has not, and the small astromech lets out a short, somber whistle-like beep, implying a sense of regret.

Eventually, the two droids get captured by Jawas during their respective travels. ‘3PO and R2 are reunited upon the creatures’ sand crawler. ‘3PO is ecstatic to see his friend. The next day, they find themselves put on display to be sold off to Tatooine’s moisture farmers. There, Luke Skywalker purchases ‘3PO and a different astromech. Upon the revelation of the sale, R2 is quite distressed knowing he will be separated from ‘3PO again, and perhaps forever. The astromech lets out a brief sad wail, and even attempts to run towards ‘3PO, but a Jawa uses the restraining bolt to thwart the droid’s escape. Yet, as fate has it, the other droid self-combusts due to having a “bad motivator.” Immediately, ‘3PO suggests Luke purchases R2 as a replacement and soon afterwards, the protocol droid scolds his friend again, telling him: “Don’t you forget this! Why I keep my neck out for you is beyond my capacity.” Yet, underneath all that attitude, there is a clear sense of relief and happiness that these two counterparts shall not be separated.

Later in the film, when Luke Skywalker and company reach the hidden rebel base on Yavin IV, Luke boards his X-Wing fighter alongside R2 as his co-pilot. During the trench run on the Death Star, R2 is severely damaged. The fighter returns from the successful mission, and the rebels celebrate the Rebellion’s greatest accomplishment. They remove R2 from the X-Wing and a distraught ‘3PO offers to donate any of his own parts if it will ensure that his astromech friend makes a full recovery. Luke ensures ‘3PO his buddy will be in the best hands. Later, during the ceremony, we see that not only has R2 made a full recovery, but both he and ‘3PO have been cleaned-up and polished—given a hero’s treatment. Luke even nods at them as a form of acknowledgement for their role in saving the day. The final shot of Star Wars frames Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca as the galaxy’s saviours. Yet, within the same frame, the two droids are given the same treatment, recognizing their contributions.

From both a technical and narrative standpoint, the two droids are responsible for uniting the story’s characters. As mentioned earlier, if ‘3PO and R2 had not landed on Tatooine and delivered Leia’s message to Obi-Wan, then Luke would not have left his home aboard the Millennium Falcon, and the subsequent events would not occur. In essence, the two droids are vital not only to the narrative arc of the Original Trilogy but are also just as vital for creating the sense of family we, the audience, feel while watching these rebel heroes fight the Empire. As a result, it is important to note that Star Wars works best when it presents relations which are relatable to its audience. In addition to the themes of redemption and good versus evil, the three ‘original’ films are about family. Above all, the films celebrate the concept of a family, which is not necessarily related by blood, but by friendship and bonds that cannot be broken. In other words, friendship can also be kinship.

For instance, in Return of the Jedi (1983), upon the death of Jabba the Hutt and the destruction of his sail barge, the heroes leave the scene aboard a desert skiff. Yet, just as Luke tells Lando to head off, he also reminds him not to “forget the two droids.” That line alone implies that these droids are very much treated like human relatives. They are important not only to the films themselves, but also to the characters on the screen. In a universe where droids are seen as man-serving machines, ‘3PO and R2 are important, vital family members. It is clear that Luke and his friends would go out of their way to ensure the safety of their robotic buddies. That idea alone is what makes the very last shot of Jedi (and the Original Trilogy itself) so heartfelt. It single-handedly cements one of the most important themes presented in the Star Wars films—blood is not always thicker than water. Within the frame itself, the heroes are positioned like a grandiose family photograph, because despite their differences, they are in fact very much a family.

The buddy film, or rather aspects of it, presented within not only the inaugural Star Wars film but the Original Trilogy as a whole, is what makes the films work. The relationship between ‘3PO and R2 is the best example of the buddy concept in the context of Star Wars. Yet, it is the overall sense of camaraderie presently active throughout the Original Trilogy which makes the world of Star Wars very relatable. In comparison to the prequels, which have a stronger focus on the destruction of those elements along with other darker themes, Star Wars is at its prime when aspects of the Originals are applied. That is why television series such as The Clone Wars (2008-2020), Rebels (2014-2018), and The Mandalorian (2019-present) are all successful and celebrated by both die-hard fans and newcomers to the franchise. Each one of those stories presents families brought together by fate and friendship. Star Wars, as a whole, highlights what buddy films often do: anything is achievable when you have your buddies by your side.

Works Cited

Star Wars. Directed by George Lucas. Performances by Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and

Mark Hamill. 1977. 20th Century Fox, 2006. DVD.

Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Directed by Richard Marquand. Performances by

Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and Mark Hamill. 1983. 20th Century Fox, 2006. DVD.