This article contains lots of spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
We’d advise you not to scroll past our Force-sensitive spoiler squirrel until you’ve seen the film…
Understandably, there was a bit of scepticism circulating prior to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ release. Amongst other things, a few of us were worried about whether the galaxy really needed another cute, beeping and dome-headed robot. But, after a couple of minutes spent watching BB-8 in action, I was utterly convinced. Despite certain stylistic similarities to that famously ballsy astromech droid from Star Wars history, BB-8 truly is – as Poe Dameron puts it – one of a kind.
The eye-catching concept of a ‘ball droid’ originated in a simple drawing that JJ Abrams himself sketched out. From there, Academy Award winning special effects artist Neal Scanlan (who won a shared Oscar in Visual Effects for his work in the FX team on Babe) brought BB-8 to life.
Scanlan and the team at Disney Research eventually came up with an actual controllable robot, and a separate puppet version. That latter of which is said to be in the film more, with CGI being used to remove the apparatus around him. Abrams’ simplistic vision eventually became reality, then, but there were discussions along the way about making BB-8 more complex.
“[T]here was a lot of talk about how this thing could move and whether it needed extra parts, like an extending neck, to allow for greater movement,” Joshua Lee – a senior designer on Mr Scanlan’s team – told StarWars.com. “I had this feeling that it didn’t need anything else,” recounted Lee, so he made a small model with all BB-8’s movements to showcase the concept.
“You could see that there weren’t any other fancy movements needed,” he explained, “that there’s so much expression and character actually in the shapes and in the way the head sort of arched over the sphere.”
Indeed, BB-8 manages to emote a lot, despite lacking a neck, arms, legs or even much of a face. At his most basic, BB-8 is a ball, a dome, some bleeps, and a big black eyeball thingy. But, like C-3P0 and R2-D2 before him, BB-8 crucially feels like a genuine character, not just cool sci-fi background dressing.
And even while his predecessors are brilliant, iconic creations, I’d go as far to say that BB-8 boasts a broader range of conveyable feelings. To misquote Luke Skywalker, I’ve never seen such emotion in a droid before.
The elegant simplicity of BB-8’s design gives him a surprising amount of emotion-presenting movements. For instance, when the Scottish space pirate spots him on Han Solo’s star ship, BB-8 fearfully rolls behind Harrison Ford’s iconic scruffy-looking nerf herder. But – because he’s just slightly too curious – BB-8 slips his head around to the side and chances a little glance around Solo’s leg. In about five seconds, he’s shown us both nervous fear and morbid intrigue.
Before this, BB-8 needed only to slump his head downwards – when Finn tells him that Poe ‘didn’t make it’ after the TIE-fighter crash – to show us what a droid in deep swathes of sadness looks like. And when he finally finds out that his former master is actually alive, BB-8 determinedly speeds headfirst through the crowds to find him. This, you could argue, is BB-8 showing hope. Or, at least, giddy excitement.
These three examples show us just how much emotionality BB-8 brings to the movie. Any of us who thought he was just going to be a cutesy toy-promoting prop were surely surprised to see him genuinely shouldering the emotional burden of the movie at times. Yes, Han Solo’s reunions with his wife and his son are The Force Awakens’ Big Emotional Moments, but BB-8 brings far more sentiment to the movie than any of us could have predicted.
And, we’ve not even mentioned one of his most enjoyable traits yet…
We’d best not forget, in all our praising of his expressive capabilities, that BB-8 is also utterly hilarious. You can truly tell that Abrams enlisted the help of comedy acting/writing talent Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live, Trainwreck, Superbad) and Ben Schwartz (Parks And Recreation, House Of Lies, The Other Guys) – who worked together on BB-8’s ‘voice’ – to inject a sense of humour to his ball droid.
Competing with Han, Chewie, Leia, Finn and Rey for laughs is no small task for droid who can’t deliver any dialogue in English, but BB-8 does manage. And although Hader and Schwartz’s beeps and whirrs do give him a quirky air, it’s often in physical moments that BB-8 garners his heftiest chortles.
In both screenings that I’ve been to, BB-8 gets the biggest laugh of the entire movie. It comes on the Millennium Falcon, after Finn begs the droid to keep his Stormtrooper secret and reveal the Resistance’s location to Rey. Unsure whether to comply, BB-8 speedily glances between Rey and Finn, which gets a decent chortle.
Seconds later, though, both audiences I’ve sat with erupted into massive guffaws. Of course, I’m talking about the moment when BB-8 mimics Finn’s thumbs up gesture using his built-in lighter function. It’s unexpected, imaginative and – simply put – a ruddy good gag. In truth, the last comedy film I saw at the cinema didn’t get one laugh this big in two hours of trying. That’s got to say something about BB-8’s wondrous comic capabilities.
A few scenes before this, when the Millennium Falcon flees Jakku in the midst of a dogfight, BB-8 tends to grab a few more laughs. The first comes when he rolls up the wall and thumps to the ground, as Rey performs a loop the loop or barrel roll of some sort. (Please do correct my dire attempt at describing the manoeuvre in the comments.) Then, seconds later, BB-8 gets another laugh by firing out some cables to support himself.
BB-8 has something of a silent comedy star about him at times, doesn’t he? The way he tries to tackle the stairs at Maz’s watering hole is hilarious in its simplicity, while his attempt to wake R2-D2 by head-butting him remains chuckle-inducing even on second viewing.
To roll back through the plot again, though, one the best things about BB-8 is the way in which he’s introduced…
The cinema goes dark. John Williams’ score blares beautifully as that big yellow title magically appears. We learn from the opening scroll that Luke Skywalker has vanished, and that the evil First Order has risen in his absence. We see the dusty sand planet Jakku from a distance, before a massive Star Destroyer-esque ship slowly positions itself above it, erasing all the planet’s light from sight. If C-3P0 were here, he’d surely exclaim that we’re doomed.
But, this time, it’s down to a BB-8 to tell us how it is. We’re taken down to Jakku, and a silent mostly-ball-shaped droid peers up to the sky. We’ve seen him in the advertising, but might be a little surprised to meet him so soon. For a second he does nothing. Says nothing. Is he trying to process what he’s seeing, or is he frozen with fright? Quite possibly, it’s a bit of both.
He rushes back to tell his master, but the two are soon separated. The fate of the galaxy ends up nestling in his rusty innards in a space-USB-stick. He rolls away as fast as he can, before turning back with something I read as paralysing fear on his ‘face,’ and the flames of an incinerated population reflected in his ‘eye.’
The Force Awakens has a lot of great character introductions, and this one is just as strong – if not stronger – compared to the rest of them. It tells us a lot about BB-8’s character – trustworthy, obedient, and capable of conveying emotions despite his robotic-ness – before thrusting him into an adventure against impossible odds to reunite with Poe and bring the map to the Resistance.
We next bump into BB-8 when Rey saves him from an unfriendly chap who wants to sell him for scrap. This, like Uncle Owen and Luke’s visit to the Jawa droid market, is a seemingly tiny moment with galactic consequences. Little does Rey know, but she’s just met her destiny. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and – perhaps most importantly – it’s recognisable, undeniable Star Wars.
Soon, another interaction between Rey and BB-8 gives the latter my favourite character-building moment of the movie. As Rey reluctantly agrees to help him, he beeps something to her. There’s a bit of a pause, before she eventually retorts ‘you’re welcome.’ BB-8, then, isn’t just a droid with a few cool features and funny expressions; he’s also capable of gratitude.
If I wasn’t already sold, this tiny flash of emotion – this miniscule ‘thank you’ moment – cemented a place for BB-8 in the ‘favourite Star Wars characters of all time’ list in my head. I really didn’t expect to come out of The Force Awakens praising the emotionality of a droid, of all things, but BB-8 took me by surprise. And with two more films to go in this trilogy, he’s hopefully got a few more tricks up his sleeve. Or, rather, hidden in his little compartment hatches.
And just finally, then, I think the core of what makes BB-8 work so well in The Force Awakens is that he embodies the spirit of the movie. He represents a blending of the old and the new in his design; he possesses a personality as well as looking visually stunning (a mix that the prequels struggled with by comparison); and he’s an emotional being who also has a sense of humour.
Isn’t this what Star Wars was always meant to be about? Seemingly unimportant characters being burdened with great destiny. Outcasts uniting against evil, but finding time to bicker and laugh along the way. He might be a new creation, then, but BB-8 – a small guy with a big personality, trying his best to help people and to raise a chuckle too – already feels like a classic Star Wars character.
And while we all predicted that there’d be some big emotional moments for the original cast members, BB-8 brought his own brand of unexpected heart to proceedings.