My least favorite thing about the Star Wars prequel trilogy almost became my favorite moment of the series, thanks to The Rise of Skywalker. But, sadly, it never materialized on screen and I am left, thinking about what might have been. (Spoilers abound, be warned.)
First, I have to tread over some very old territory, but I think it will be worth it. Let’s talk about the tossed away, head-scratching moment from The Phantom Menace that many of us have hated for years: C3PO, a protocol droid, was built by Anakin Skywalker. A child Anakin made the droid, long before he started down the dark path that would lead him to become Darth Vader. I despised that “twist” more than “coarse sand,” Jar Jar Binks, or a hundred other nitpicks, because C3PO as Darth Vader’s creation isn’t just foolish and empty, it diminishes the movies that came before.
There is never any meaning in the revelation that C3PO is Vader’s creation. It was little more than a pale, empty echo of the moment Luke discovered Vader was his father. A connection for the sake of putting familiar characters in the same room — not for the sake of any actual, human connection between them. Which is weird, since a protocol droid’s job is to connect people by assisting with etiquette and translation.
The theme of characters being related or connected is repeated many times, but never with any weight after that first “Luke, I am your father” revelation. They do all rely on the same trick, which requires the characters in question to have no memory of their lineage. The most recent “reveal” of Rey as Palpatine’s grandchild is entirely uninspired, and completely at odds with the previous film. For all of the flaws of “The Last Jedi,” its best selling point was “confirming” Rey is no one — a far more hopeful idea than insisting everyone have lineage and pedigree to be important. The ending, where Rey “rises” as a Skywalker, would have had more impact not as a rejection of her Palpatine-hood, but as an embracing of her Skywalker-ness.
Full disclosure: I cried anyway. I don’t actually think that last scene makes much sense, but still: tears.
Instead, Rey is a forgotten Palpatine, which requires some logical leaps and a lot of forgotten history by everyone in both the Republic and the Empire.
As for C3PO being built by young Anakin Skywalker — it makes no sense. Young “Annie” says he built the droid to help his mother, which is sweet, but also nonsense. C3PO is a protocol droid. What is his mother, Shmi Skywalker, a slave, going to do with a protocol droid? The first film is swimming in droids that could have lent a better hand. C3PO’s foremost ability is translating languages and panicking — and, presumably, helping with correct protocol between the Star Wars universe’s many species as I mentioned above.
Not only are Anakin and his mother overtly portrayed as slaves, but Droids are often portrayed in slave-like circumstances themselves. From the very first film in 1977, R2D2 and C3PO are forced into servitude and denied freedom by means of a restraining bolt. It’s hardly any different than a shackle. R2D2 is so clever he tricks Luke into removing his so he can escape. A more thorough examination of droid slavery and sentience are probably covered well elsewhere and certainly worthy of discussion. Here, it’s worth noting that Wookiepedia, the repository for Star Wars knowledge, says of droids: “Memory wipes were an important process, and the lack of one could allow droids to develop new ideas.” That’s a pretty chilling concept almost certainly derived from the practice in America of making writing and reading illegal for slaves. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it — and that was the idea, to keep slavery going.
C3PO’s status as a creation of the pre-evil Darth Vader never affects the story. No one notices. No one cares. The filmmakers don’t seem to want us to remember. The fans with the most generous take suggest that, maybe Anakin built C3PO because he needed a friend. Again, sweet, but even if true, the idea never comes up again. There are dozens of droids just like him in the universe. We even see them before C3PO is introduced in The Phantom Menace. He isn’t a special Anakin creation; he is just a protocol droid whose kit or parts the child found, I guess. (We never get any insight into how or why he decided to build this particular kind of droid.) We have no reason to think C3PO is different from any of the other protocol droids, except that he fusses and complains more than we see the others do.
Keep in mind, C3PO and R2D2 are the first characters we see in the original Star Wars. We meet them nearly 20 minutes before Luke is introduced. That is a very unusual narrative structure. At the start, our empathy is with the the droids, and C3PO is the only one who can speak. They are also the only characters who are in all three trilogies of films. I had hoped that there would be some importance to this connecting thread and I found one (keep reading), but the filmmakers did not.
By the time we reach The Rise of Skywalker, C3PO has become less and less respected by the characters around him, and by the story itself. It’s sad to see. He’s gone from being comic relief to the butt of the joke. Yet, in this film, he has arguably his most important moment. He unexpectedly holds not only the key to translating a critical text, but also, because of plot convolutions, C3PO is the only one with a memory of (and therefore access to) the text itself. Unfortunately his programming forbids him from translating it because it is written in
the black speech of Mordor Sith. In order to translate the language of evil, C3PO must be erased, wiping out his memory of everything that has come before.
For a series that loves to trade in stories of hope and redemption, it sure would have been something to see C3PO sacrifice himself for his friends. But he doesn’t exactly do that. J.J. Abrams plays the scene for both humor and emotion, but doesn’t succeed in having it both ways. Still, there is a beautiful moment from actor Anthony Daniels, shown in the trailers, where C3PO takes “one last look at his friends.”
I thought that was the beginning of an unexpected and wonderful C3PO arc. I thought we were going to see something truly moving. But instead of being the start of something emotional, it’s just a set up for a handful of punchlines about C3PO being a clueless droid re-introducing himself.
C3PO’s memory is wiped, and then, after his amnesia has been played for laughs, R2D2 gives him a backup of his memories. Never mind that we were explicitly told this scenario wasn’t possible ten minutes earlier. That is the worst kind of writing. Setting up high stakes (it’s pretty much end of C3PO), and then taking them back is simply a cheat. It isn’t the only time it happens in this film, with the shell game of Chewbacca’s “death” being an even more egregious and, frankly, bullshit example.
Perhaps most importantly C3PO doesn’t get back all his memories. He gets them from the time he left R2’s company, back to whenever the previous time his memory was wiped — presumably at the end of Revenge of the Sith. The movie is fairly explicit about that first point and utterly ignores the latter. The writers/producers/directors don’t seem to think the entire audience remembers this isn’t the first time C3PO’s memory has been erased. It has happened before. If it hadn’t C3PO would remember he was created by Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, Darth Vader.
I thought that was going to be a huge plot point — one that strung the nine movies together in a poignant and beautiful way. Here is how:
I thought C3PO was going to remember everything. How remarkable would it have been for C3PO to remember something no one else can: A time when Darth Vader, was a young, innocent boy named Anakin Skywalker — long before he turned to the dark side. He could have remembered Anakin Skywalker when he was fully himself! Wouldn’t that image — the tale of it told by C3PO whose main purpose is to bridge the gap between the galaxy’s beings — hold some weight for the angry young Kylo/Ben, so obsessed with Darth Vader he keeps Vader’s mask on a plinth to worship? Wouldn’t that have been a little more impactful than Leia reaching out…kinda late. What if she reached out with this?
The only other person to experience anything like that moment is Luke Skywalker, at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Vader, dying, begs Luke to take off his mask so Luke can see him as no one has in years: as human. Anakin Skywalker wants to be known — his face seen, for one last moment. It’s kind of a big deal. It deserved a better bookend.
And the mask? Kylo Ren has been worshiping the mask, not the man who was revealed beneath it. Kylo Ren has forgotten his grandfather’s most important accomplishment: his redemption. It is like the galaxy doesn’t dare remember how Darth Vader was redeemed, or like history itself hasn’t been passed down. (This is what happens when a culture is illiterate — and there is plenty of evidence few people in the Star Wars universe can read.)
Meanwhile, one could easily infer C3PO has been keeping his own spiritual beliefs, worshiping the kindest and most innocent parts of “Lord Vader,” whether C3PO remembers Vader as a boy or not. As others have posited well before me, when C3PO says “Thank the Maker” he may very well mean whoever made him. Such a theory is almost certainly trying to take a simple exclamation and make a lot out of it. But, in a film that gives Chewbacca the medal he was denied in “A New Hope”, and mostly succeeds in conjuring up a story from the late and wonderful Carrie Fisher’s cutting room floor footage, that isn’t at all an unreasonable thing to do. What kind of spiritual moment would it bring about in C3PO? What kind of new ideas might develop?
This whole unexplored idea of C3PO finally remembering everything also would have offered a powerful moment for R2D2, who does little more than convalesce throughout the 3rd trilogy. What if, in addition to carrying the critical plans in “A New Hope”, R2 has been carrying a backup of C3PO’s memory of Darth Vader as a boy all this time? What if the reason R2D2 has become less and less capable (that droid used to have rocket packs, now he barely moves) is because more and more of his processor has been devoted to holding memories — including C3PO’s memory of Vader as kind, innocent and human? Wouldn’t that lend some weight to having these two droids as a through-line to the story? Instead of diminishing the prior films, it would enhance them.
There is some tenuous evidence that George Lucas may have meant to do something like this if he hadn’t sold Star Wars to Disney™. George Lucas has said, “The entire story of Star Wars is actually being recounted… a hundred years after the events of Return of the Jedi by none other than R2-D2.”
Lucas also says R2 is “the only character who doesn’t make a mistake,” (I can’t say if that’s actually true) and refers to C3PO as an unreliable narrator. Then again, I believe George Lucas is an unreliable narrator. When he says shit like this, I roll my eyes, even if it serves the case I’m trying to make.
Sadly, none of this really matters. The “Saga is complete” as the ad campaign so clearly told us, and in it, forgetting is more important than remembering. Perhaps that is why the galaxy in Star Wars is doomed to repeat its history, over and over again.