Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker is one of my favorite performances in the Star Wars Saga.
There was a time not so long ago where this was far from the case.
I never loathed him as the hatedom does, but for a long time I at least had no real defense when someone brought him up. I agreed that he wasn’t very good.
It was one of the early revelations of my current Star Wars Activism. I was watching the special features on my Attack of the Clones DVD; specifically the web documentaries that the official site had put up to tease the fans little by little leading up to the release of Clones. I had never seen them before, since I hadn’t had a large internet presence until around that time and the Star Wars site never worked right for me.
In any case, the webisode on Hayden Christensen comes up, and it’s everyone and their mother railing about how wonderful he is. George loves him. Ewan loves him. Natalie loves him. The casting director, various crewmembers, everybody is praising his talent and his skills.
This is the point where I said to myself “Is this the same person we’re talking about here?” At first I thought they were just trying to build him up for the fans, but I doubted that. Everyone seemed so sincere. It was then I thought “Well, lots of things from I-III have been misunderstood and underrated. Could it be there’s an element of Christensen’s performance that has eluded us?”
Faster than you can say “Challenge Accepted,” out went the special features disc and in went the feature film disc. I resolved to watch Hayden very closely, to see if there was something subtle about his performance. At first, everything was as I remembered it. He was whiny, slightly monotone, overall awkward. At about the time Zam Wessel was being dragged out of the Coruscant Cantina, I was saying “Boy, it’s like this guy doesn’t know how to interact with other people.”
All at once, it was like a brick had been thrown at my head. I remembered who we were talking about here.
This is a person who only has one set of human chromosomes, having been conceived by the midichlorians (or by someone who was manipulating them, whatever your theory is). He then spends almost the first decade of his life as a slave before being taken from his mother and thrust into a society that shuns overt displays of emotion. This guy must have psychological and emotional issues up the yin-yang.
Wouldn’t you have trouble interacting with other beings? Of course you would. George Lucas knew that, and Hayden Christensen damn well knew that.
This was Anakin’s character. That was his arc. And Christensen was doing a fine job portraying that. I was instantly hooked.
Now, my first impression was that either consciously or unconsciously, Anakin was being portrayed with high-functioning Autism. I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and my day job is working with and helping other people on the spectrum. Many of Anakin’s behavior patterns match what I’ve seen both in myself and in the people I work with. However, the truth of the matter needn’t be that complicated (though it’s an interesting alternate interpretation). The more I listened, the more I studied, the more I came to realize that what many people write off as a “wooden monotone” is actually James Earl Jones’ Vader cadence overlapped with the patented Skywalker Whine that most people forget was actively employed by Luke in IV and V. It was pulled off so subtly that most of us didn’t even notice, which I feel is both to Christensen’s credit and detriment. For people who can’t hear the Vader part, all you need to do is tune out Luke and there it is.
Of course some true fans did notice right away, which endeared him to them. And these same fans also noticed how much care Christensen took in (again, subtly) aping David Prowse’s body language throughout Clones and Sith. Nowhere is that more clear than in any walk-and-talk scene between him and Palpatine. It feels like Return of the Jedi again.
I would still hesitate to call Hayden Christensen a “great” actor, in the same way I would hesitate to call Mark Hamil a “great” actor. However, there’s one thing Hayden Christensen has always been able to portray spectacularly, and that is angst and pain. Anakin Skywalker by his nature is filled with both of these, so the casting was pitch-perfect in that regard. So why do some people refuse to see that?
Because a lot of people didn’t want to see angst and pain of that level in Anakin. I think they thought it made him weak, when they grew up with Vader as the biggest baddie of them all. The trouble is that Vader is not the biggest baddie of them all, hasn’t been since Empire at least. Come to think of it, Grand Moff Tarkin is a bigger bad guy than Vader in New Hope. The tragedy of Darth Vader is that he’s damaged goods, and damaged goods is Hayden Christensen’s specialty.
Plus, let’s be honest, he’s just got those eyes…