It feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when we last saw Hayden Christensen portray Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in live-action Star Wars. The actor, currently 40 years old, received a lot of flak for his portrayal, with The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw describing his “armoury of facial expressions [as] modestly stocked”. He even managed to find himself a nominee for ‘Worst Supporting Actor” at the Golden Raspberries for 2002’s Attack of the Clones. Yet, despite all this, Hayden Christensen is returning as Darth Vader in Disney+’s Obi-Wan and Ahsoka.
But there’s another train of thought. Some fans feel that Christensen was betrayed by the screenplay and film direction. George Lucas’s writing is the subject of much mockery, criticized for being clunky and wooden (he has acknowledged that he isn’t great at writing dialogue). So, what is the reality here? Is it Hayden Christensen’s competency as an actor regarding Anakin Skywalker’s wooden character or is it George Lucas’s writing and direction?
George Lucas’s Clunky Dialogue
If there’s one thing Lucas is criticized for (and he’s criticized for a great many things), it’s his writing. You know it. I know it. Heck, Lucas knows it. Upon collecting his Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFI in 2005, he joked he was “the king of wooden dialogue”. To be fair, that’s a throne he truly deserves.
You know he’s the King of Wooden Dialogue when watching Attack of the Clones. In an intimate conversation with Amidala, Anakin complains about how he doesn’t like sand because “it’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere”. While meant to depict Anakin’s resentment of his old life in Tatooine, it just comes across as awkward and silly.
Interestingly, while Christensen does indeed fail at his spoken scenes, he does excel in scenes where he’s not speaking. As pointed by Doug Walker, the Nostalgia Critic, the actor is at his best when he’s acting via facial expression alone. A good example is when Anakin is finished slaughtering the Trade Federation cronies in Mustafar. The way he stands there in gloomy silence, with a tortured demonic expression is dramatically effective. It conveys far more of his inner pain than his words ever do.
Let There Be Silence
Hayden Christensen’s underrated ability to excel in subtler forms of acting shows us that he’s not all and as Anakin Skywalker. Clearly, it’s only his spoken scenes that show his weaknesses. But given George Lucas’s terrible scriptwriting, you can hardly give Christensen full blame for this.
Lucas’s dialogue has been the source of criticism since the original Star Wars in 1977. As described in the biography George Lucas: A Life, Harrison Ford was so unsatisfied with his dialogue that he ad-libbed many of his scenes. “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it”, Ford is thought to have said. Ford would go through his lines and tweak them every day, with no qualms from Lucas.
In fact, even The Empire Strikes Back, often deemed the best Star Wars movie, required extensive editing to Lucas’s script. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan reworked the script until the last moments before filming began. “There were sections in the script,” Kasdan is quoted in John Baxter’s George Lucas: A Biography, “which, when I read them, made me say to myself, ‘I can’t believe George wrote this scene. It’s terrible.” Yet, despite such trials and tribulations, Episode V remains one of the darkest, most mature and beloved Star Wars stories to date.
I digress, but you see my point. Lucas’s general concepts are genius. The original trilogy, in particular, is chock-full of these, possibly changing cinema forever. However, Shakespeare, he is not, and the lacking material he gave Christensen and his fellow actors in the prequels is a shining example of his ineptitude in this area.
No Emotion in the Dialogue
In many ways, it’s a blessing Lucas is no longer involved with the Star Wars franchise. Indeed, it’s an additional blessing that Christensen is reprising his (in)famous role. This gives the veteran Star Wars actor a chance to work with or under (hopefully) better writers for Anakin Skywalker. Both the shows he’s starring in, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka, are helmed by Favreau and Filioni who are behind The Mandalorian, which has been subject to critical and commercial success.
Now, it’s true that Disney’s Star Wars movies have been subject to criticism, accused of being soulless cash cows rehashing old ideas. However, due to the success of The Mandalorian and Visions, critics are optimistic about the franchises’ streaming future. Given their success, Hayden Christensen couldn’t have found a better time to rejoin the franchise and return as Darth Vader.
You see, Lucas’s weakness lay not only in writing but in directing. Lucas never worked well with actors and isn’t especially nuanced when it comes to telling them what he expects from their performance. Mark Hamill recalled his time filming the original trilogy with the Star Wars mastermind:
I would to talk to George about say Luke and what he is feeling … ‘Should I be jealous that this guy is hitting on the Princess?’ George would say: ‘That’s interesting. We’ll talk about it later.’ Which, of course, we never would!”
To put it bluntly, Lucas never was good with actors. Many fellow Star Wars actors attest to Lucas’s loose directing style and bad communication. Therefore, it’s reasonable to believe Christensen’s ‘Wooden Anakin’ can’t entirely be his own fault.
Return of the Jedi
Now, I imagine some people will point out that, despite this, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan performance is pretty good. In fact, many would argue it’s the best part of the prequel trilogy. However, we must remember that McGregor had the late Alec Guinness on which to model his performance. Unlike McGregor, Christensen had no reference for his character. Yes, there was David Prowse as Vader’s body in the original trilogy and James Earl Jones as his voice. However, Christensen mostly plays a pre-Vader Anakin. Before the prequels, nobody knew what Anakin was like pre-Dark Side.
But now, Christensen has that Star Wars experience under his belt. He’s also starred in a variety of films alongside big names like Bruce Willis, Adrien Brody and Jessica Alba. There’s potential for the actor to do Anakin Skywalker justice once more and revive his career, much like William Zabka did when he returned as Johnny Lawrence in Cobra Kai. And I for one, am looking forward to seeing it.
What do you think of Hayden Christensen returning as the actor for Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader? Do you think his performance as Anakin was hampered by Lucas’s directing or does more of the blame lie at Christensen’s feet? Share your thoughts in the comments below!