by Michael Polebaum, Staff Writer, April 2021
One of my earliest memories of going to the movies with my dad was during the glorious winter of 1997. George Lucas announced that he was re-releasing the Star Wars trilogy in theaters, and at the age of seven, I was going to have the rare opportunity of seeing Star Wars on the big screen. The experience was magical.
As a pretty nerdy kid who didn’t have too many friends growing up (why have friends when you can have Beanie Babies?), Star Wars provided me an escape from reality. It was a world in which a loner kid on Tatooine was able to take down an entire Galactic Empire. Not to mention the fact that the world was full of space wizards. Star Wars was the first fandom I fell in love with (sorry Harry), and it has maintained that special place in my heart all these years later.
With that in mind, imagine my excitement as I waited in line to watch Episode I: The Phantom Menace just two years later. To put it bluntly, the film, even for a nine-year-old, was terrible. Sure, the battle scenes were fun to watch, but a space opera about trade blockades and senate corruption was not what young Michael was hoping for. So, when Episode II: Attack of the Clones was released in May of 2002, I was longing for cinematic redemption.
That’s when Hayden Christensen entered my life. Even with the addition of hundreds of Space Wizards, Hayden Christensen sucked all of the magic out of Star Wars. He is, simply put, a bad actor. While much of the fault with the trilogy series lies at the feet of George Lucas’s insufferable scripts, Christensen cannot get a free pass.
Throughout both Episode II and Episode III, Hayden’s Anakin Skywalker is a single note character. Though the entire storyline centers around Anakin’s descent into the dark side of the force, all Hayden presents us with is a whiny character with no emotional depth. From the moment we first lay eyes on Anakin in an elevator on his way to see Padmé Amidala to the final lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin on Mustafar, Hayden is unable to portray any versatility in his scenes.
As an example, let’s break down a scene that occurs about two-thirds of the way through Episode II. It follows Anakin’s extermination of a clan of Tusken Raiders on his home planet of Tatooine. The event acts as the first slip for Anakin into the dark side as he allows his anger to overwhelm him following the death of his mother. This should be a scene that resonates deeply, but Hayden’s perpetual whininess prevents the viewer from engaging with Anakin’s internal struggle. He delivers lines about saving his mother and his brutal extermination of the Tusken Raiders in the same way. Occasionally he may yell here or there, but it’s the same tactic used from one beat to another. It is, sadly, cringeworthy.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is Hayden’s inability to properly convey Anakin’s love for Padmé. The relationship between the two characters is of paramount importance to the plot. It is this love that ultimately drives Anakin to the dark side enabling Darth Vader to emerge victoriously, but Hayden is unconvincing in the more intimate scenes. Certainly, the dialogue is clunky (“I don’t like sand”) and poorly written, but Hayden comes off more like a sociopath devoid of emotion than a young man wrestling with forbidden desire.
Because Hayden is unable to properly convey Anakin’s complex emotional state, the entire storyline of the prequel series collapses. Viewers cannot simply write off the egregious performance of Episode II and rely on the fun fight choreography of Episode III as a saving grace. While Hayden’s efforts to flawlessly pull off the complex choreography are commendable, the emotions that underlie the choreography are absent due to mistakes that were made in Episode II and early scenes in Episode III. What viewers are left with is a quick and not believable transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader.
The most damning indictment of Hayden Christensen’s work in the prequel series, however, comes not from the prequels themselves, but rather from the excellent performance of Matt Lanter as the voice of Anakin Skywalker in the television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Over seven seasons, Matt Lanter and supervising director Dave Filoni were able to rehabilitate the character of Anakin Skywalker. The series provides the emotional depth that Hayden was unable to handle in the feature films demonstrating that it was indeed the actor’s fault and not any flaw with the character.
An excellent subplot that occurs in the mysterious realm of Mortis from the series demonstrates how Anakin’s struggle with his emotions can create a compelling story. Deserted on Mortis along with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ashoka Tano, Anakin is confronted by the three characters of the Father, the Daughter, and the Son. The Daughter represents the light side of the force, the son the dark side, while the Father acts as a balance between the two. As the Chosen One, Anakin is destined to replace the Father and bring balance to the force. While stranded on Mortis, Anakin faces his future as Darth Vader. Constantly pulled between his attachment to his friends and his love for Padmé and his ultimate destiny as the Chosen One, the emotional struggle that both voice actor and director are able to portray is gripping and believable, and it provides the emotional texture and depth that the character of Anakin has so desperately needed.
There is no doubt that Hayden Christensen has been a devoted member of the Star Wars universe. His work on multiple video games demonstrates a commitment to both the series and the role. Commitment, however, does not equate to ability. Hayden’s casting greatly limited the potential of the prequel films, and no amount of devotion can overcome his weak performance.
It has been nineteen years since Hayden Christensen so rudely forced his way into my life. He shook my love of Star Wars to the core. Luckily so many talented individuals have worked to rehabilitate the series following the disaster of the prequel films. The hope that Hayden Christensen destroyed in Episode II and III has been rekindled thanks to excellent TV series like The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, and The Mandalorian. Balance has luckily been restored to the force.