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I understand the director's explanation for R2's awakening, but prior to reading that my theory was that the saber was left in Maz Kanata's possession purposefully, and that R2 sensed the saber's presence when Rey finally appeared at the resistance base.

R2 saying, "I found it" just as Rey appeared at the base, and the flashback of Luke placing his hand on R2 could relate to R2's forced low power mode and sudden awakening once a few conditions are met - Luke's desire to be found only when someone is called by the saber, accepts it, and that person meeting up with Leia (who would presumably keep R2 with her).

This question isn't about the validity of this theory, rather: is the saber ever near R2 prior to Rey's appearance on base in the movie, or is it far away from R2 until Rey appears on base?

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Yes, it is brought to the base long before Rey shows up, since

Maz Kanata gives the lightsaber to Finn, after Rey declined to take it.

After that, the castle is attacked, and Finn and Rey are separated. Finn goes back to the Resistance base with

lightsaber in hand (or smuggler's compartment), having recovered it from the Stormtrooper that confiscated it.

And Rey is then carted off to Starkiller base with Kylo, sans lightsaber.

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    Do we see him with the saber on the base? The scenes before (on the landing apron) seem to show him without it, suggesting he's left it in his ship... – Valorum Jan 5 '16 at 20:00
  • @Richard No, we never see him carrying it while at the Resistance base. But the lightsaber is definitely there at the base, if even left on the ship at the entrance to the base. – Dave Johnson Jan 5 '16 at 20:19
  • So it might be sat in the unscannable smuggling compartment on the Falcon? – Valorum Jan 5 '16 at 20:23
  • @Richard Unless DVK can swoop in with a contradiction from the novelization, then yes, it might be sat in the unscannable smuggling compartment. Or it might be in Finn's pocket. It was not shown on screen again until the fight in the forest. – Dave Johnson Jan 5 '16 at 20:30
  • Would it even need to be in an unscannable compartment? We don't know the range of what R2 is using to scan with, especial in low power coma mode. Finn doesn't have any real need to bring the saber into the base. – joshbirk Jan 5 '16 at 20:51

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