Wouldn’t one expect that when a writer puts a couple characters into nearly every scene and circumstance in a story, that those characters would be implicated and pivotal? Wouldn’t this be especially true when the characters are made to seem unaware of it?
Angels represent the visible manifestation of distant Power and are further allegorical of an ongoing fight between good and evil. In story, the good characters are often made to interact with angels directly; the bad characters, if portrayed as being aware of them at all, run from or try to destroy them: Angels, and how characters interact with them, mark inherent goodness in characters by the degree to which we can be convinced they feel the presence of angelic types.
Throughout the entire Star Wars saga, we see that only the likable characters, even if likable briefly, are the ones whom we see interact most closely with the robots, C3PO an R2D2. This rule is so consistent that I think you could determine whether or not a character is malevolent based strictly on the instances in which they interact with one or both of the robots. Those characters having better natures listen to the robots, address them as individuals, even argue with or care to admonish them; the bad characters treat them as little more than appliances, if they acknowledge them at all.
These two robots are in most circumstances made to seem as invisible as janitors, so it adds a strange quality to the story and a twist to my stated rule that Anakin Skywalker was made out to be a child prodigy and genius having expansive technical skills of rockets and robots. It is strange that he spent so much of his efforts and time rebuilding C3PO only, by all appearances, to never again acknowledge his early interactions with C3PO in later episodes. This was the robot he reassembled as a boy, after all! Well, I suppose this somewhat demonstrates for me the almost symbolically spiritual qualities of the robots: It is as though by embracing “evil” (“turning to the Dark side”), descending into a deeply sublimated denial, that Darth Vader loses his ability to see his old robot for what and who he is.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give us enough direct information. So, we are forced to investigate their narrative purposes for ourselves by making some comparisons. We could, for a start, compare their natures with those of similar characters in a movie with a very different pace and setting. In Wings of Desire; Wim Wenders presents us with angels who are made to be observers of human life. Cassiel admonishes Damiel:
Let things happen! Keep serious! We can only be savages in as much as we keep serious. Do no more than look! Assemble, testify, preserve! Remain spirit! Keep your distance. Keep your word.
No one can see them, even the man who had once been an angel himself could do no more than suspect the occasional presence of his old, angelic colleague. These figures are intensely self-conscious and aware of their effects. They are driven in a task. They are ethical, but this ethics is not separate from desire (hence the title). In fact, I might guess that the greater the desire, the greater is the need for the ethical.
The 1977 robots of Star Wars, predating the 1987 angel Cassiel, did more than “let things happen”. They were involved, but without realizing the significance of any of it. It is an interesting contrast. Though knowing nothing but raw facts (they needn’t have been told, “keep your word”), they were unaware and central. They had no desire for the very significance they had in surplus. They were everywhere in story, but as machines, existed only within their programmed point reality.
Just to confuse you further, I feel I should travel back yet another decade prior to consider how the The Prime Directive was upheld, ostensibly, as the highest ideal and the driving principal of exploration in the 1967 world of Star Trek. The explorers of that universe were told, as with the later robots of Star Wars and the angels of Wings of Desire, to observe and investigate, but not to meddle in the independent development of isolated civilizations. Yet, almost weekly, we saw the captain of a Federation starship routinely violate that directive with complete impunity, all the while making a hypocritical show of keeping the faith! We know that he should have been invisible, and we could repeat to ourselves the doctrinal position in defense of our own Glorious Society that “really, the high ideals of the Federation were what made them a force for good”. The Kirk character had the power, the freedom and the self-assigned privilege to be visible then invisible at will, yet chose constantly to be influential where he should not have been at all.
Which makes me think just now — forgive me — of yet another invisible character in yet another story: The invisible janitor in Flawless (2007) who, taking advantage of common knowledge that no one sees a low status service worker, even when said low status service worker is standing right there in the room, managed to rob a diamond firm. In this way he was propelled from his invisible station — or made to fall, like an angel, depending on your perspective. As the story unfolds we discover that the diamond company had used their own quite visible powers for evil, so it turns out this invisible angel wasn’t “fallen” after all. He had been invisible, to their knowledge, at a time when he was a mere benign non-force within their organization; he remained invisible to them, stubbornly, even when they later really wanted to find and prosecute him.
Now and until the end
I once read that George Lucas believed Star Wars to be a story about Anakin Skywalker. I stopped cold. How could that be? The only two characters present from the beginning, who remain largely unchanged to the very end when literally everything and everyone else had changed completely, are a pair of robots. Along the way, we learn how the robots met, how they depended upon one another, how they came to depend on humans to free them from one or another temporary oblivion 1. It is also true that we never learn about what they think — about anything. They remain yet partially invisible even to us, the audience.
Star Wars is not about a war — not merely about a war, I should say — a war is just backdrop. And it isn’t about any of the petty jostling for power, love, or wealth. Those are the subtexts and devices put in most stories to ferry along a particular hidden ideology and overt morality tale. Whether Lucas likes it or not, Star Wars is a story which pushes a particular point through a constant, physical presence; how a pair of robots demonstrated empirically that The Force is absolutely nothing but hand-waving and that it is more important to actually just be where you need to be, when you need to be there, and to do what you need to do. That, whether anyone ever knows you exist or not.