In Defense of Hayden Christensen as Anakin "Darth Vader" Skywalker
Please do not misunderstand me. When I propose to take as my task, the defense of Hayden Christensen as Anakin "Darth Vader" Skywalker, I do not mean to say that his performance was good. His performance was not good; it was wooden and uninspired. I am fully aboard the bandwagon on that score.
Here's where I jump off the bandwagon: I say that it was not all his fault and, indeed, that it could not possibly have been his fault. You see, unlike everyone else I have heard on this matter, I refuse to let writers, directors, and in a larger, broader sense, the material itself off the hook.
You see, a couple of days ago I was watching one of those WatchMojo.com videos that goes into all of this. I believe there was a top ten reasons why Hollywood won't cast Hayden Christensen anymore videos. Those two prequels and particularly Mr. Christensen's performance are regularly slammed.
I'd like to begin my commentary by saying that I am generally against sequels to movies. My feeling is that the more you go on, the greater chance you give yourself to mess things up. You see, any movie has its imperfections, its loose bits of thread that if you pull on them can badly unravel things.
I wish studios would learn to quit while they are ahead. I wish they would learn when they have told a complete story with the first, single movie; I wish they would learn to stop there and move on to other projects. I feel this way about the Underworld ("werewolves v. vampires) and Matrix series. In each case a complete story was told with the first movie; and in each case, therefore, the studio should have stopped while they were ahead.
What happened with the Star Wars cinema franchise is, I'm afraid, another negative example of the virtue of leaving well enough alone.
In my opinion, all concerned would have been better off leaving well enough alone after Return of the Jedi. After that, they should have left the rest to novels, graphic novels, comic books, cartoons, web cartoons, and our imaginations.
What ever happened to the first rule of show business: "Always leave them wanting more"?
Always leave us wanting more! Don't always try to give it to us! Because there comes a point where "it" is no longer worth giving or receiving. I'm talking about the "law of diminishing returns" and all that good stuff.
There are two areas I would like to focus on with regard to Mr. Christensen's performance as Anakin "Darth Vader" Skywalker: the material regarding the Jedi ideology, which talks about how, among other things, fear is the way to the "dark side," and all that; and the brilliant scriptwriting that had Anakin slaughter the baby Jedis.
This WatchMojo.com video takes Christensen to task for his performance in the way: it says that he played an iconic character to be feared as a whiny cry baby, who frequently looked like he was about to break into tears every time he spoke, and so forth.
Here's the thing
The material, as it developed as the series of films went on, boxed that character (and consequently any actor playing it) into a corner. That is to say that the material, with its emphasis on fear as a path to the dark side of the Force put young Anakin Skywalker, and therefore Hayden Christensen, into a kind of dead end, which almost made the kind of performance he turned in inevitable.
Let me explain.
Those of you who are familiar, will recall when five-year-old Anakin Skywalker is taken before the senior Jedi council, before Yoda himself. What is the very first thing that wrinkled, ancient, gray, three-foot prune says to the child?
The first thing Yoda says is how he senses the boy's fear, and how fear is the way to the dark side... yada, yada, yada... As if a five-year-old boy is not supposed to feel fear, at least no five-year-old who thinks he can be a Jedi.
- We know that Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader of The Dark Side
- We know that "fear" is supposedly a path to the Dark Side.
- We know that fear is emphasized as an aspect of Anakin's make up
- But Darth Vader, presumably---at least this is my inference from WatchMojo.com---is a Sith Lord without fear.
- There is a contradiction: Are we to understand that fear is a path to the Dark Side and then disappears once one has fully crossed over the Dark Side?
What I am saying is that, in my opinion, by prolonging the movie series, Anakin Skywalker's character was put on to a self-defeating trajectory. I am going to illustrate this point by comparing the Anakin Skywalker character and the Star Wars prequels, to another character from another show entirely.
Ethan Chandler on Showtime's Penny Dreadful
If you compare the material that Hayden Christensen had to work with, as Anakin Skywalker, to the material Josh Hartnett has to work with, as Ethan Chandler---one can see what a contradictory and self-defeating trajectory that the Anakin Skywalker character was put on, with the continuation of the Star Wars film franchise.
If you do not watch Penny Dreadful you will not know what I am talking about. If you do watch "Penny Dreadful" on ShowTime, you might know what I am talking about.
Anyway, Ethan Chandler is a cowboy gunslinger/soldier. Oh, and he's a werewolf. Ethan Chandler is a character that I can believe becoming a Darth Vader-type. To me, the structure of his pain seems perfectly conducive to such a transformation.
We find Ethan, far from London traversing the southwestern desert of the United States of America, en route to his father, whom the lad means to send to Hell. His companion, also far from London, a native, is the witch-woman, the surviving daughter, the only surviving member of the London "coven," if you will. She is a self-avowed servant of Lucifer, the Devil.
Ethan is torn by rage at his father, the man who, basically, had first pushed Ethan into darkness (the details need not detain us here).
Ethan Chandler is driven by guilt for the pain and suffering he has caused, both as a man and as a werewolf.
Ethan Chandler is plagued with fear. But here is the crucial difference between his fear and the ill-defined fear of Anakin Skywalker. Ethan's fear is directed inward, at himself. That is to say, he is afraid of the damage he might do to human society, perhaps both as a man and definitely as a werewolf. This means he puts a lot of effort into holding himself back.
Enter the witch-woman
There was a reason she followed Ethan across an ocean and into the American southwest. She explained that her goal was to: "... liberate your true nature and rule the darkness at your side." She could not be any more clear than that. Basically, she wants to make him "Dartth Vader."
It turns out that she is the perfect catalyst to do this. As I said before, Ethan has both rage at his father, for having, in effect pushed him into darkness in the first place; and guilt about what he's done as both a human and werewolf; and fear at what damage he might still do to humanity.
The witch-woman suggests a way that Ethan can free himself of his guilt. Essentially, she suggests that Ethan would do well to characterize his father and the whole of humanity in the same bag. For all intents and purposes, she says "screw humanity" except to enslave them and feed upon them.
In so many words, she says "Screw humanity and I'll tell you why." She tells Ethan her story, about how she had been first pushed into darkness by her mother, who "enlisted" her. She explained that her mother had given her over to Lucifer, when she had been but five-years-old.
She spoke of "Lucifer's claws raking over my body." "You think you know pain?" she said to Ethan. That story, of course, proved a point. She had told Ethan that she thought that they were very much alike, or at least not so different.
Anyway, for that reason, the witch-woman's position is, basically, "screw the lot of them'---humanity, that is, except to enslave them and feed upon them.
Well, time goes by and they continue to wander around the desert. They take shelter in a cave. At one point, Ethan looks at his physically very lovely companion and seems to give a short speech in which he revels in how bad he is. He once again vows to send his father to Hell and laugh as he does it; and then, most important of all, he declares that he is "done trying to be good."
As you can imagine, they consummated things after that. I was waiting for that; you couldn't not know that would happen. Put a very good looking boy together with a very good looking girl, let them spend lots and lots and lots of time alone together, and sooner or later, they're going to "consummate" things.
An interesting moment came when she said to Ethan, "And when you take your father's life, whisper these words, 'Lucifer, I am your animal,' and you will never feel guilt again."
That is important. What she wants to do is help Ethan destroy the guilt barrier, and, hopefully, thereby get him to take his mission he set for him regarding his father, and generalize it for all humanity, bringing in "the darkness," which she wants to rule at his side.
I should say that the witch-woman is unfortunately dead now; and it doesn't quite seem as though Ethan will crossover into darkness at this time.
My point is this: Josh Hartnett/Ethan Chandler was given, in the written material, the perfectly trajectory into becoming Darth Vader. Hayden Christensen/Anakin "Darth Vader" Skywalker was not; he was not given anything at all to work with. As a result, all that the Anakin character gets to do is come off petulant and whine all the time about how the senior members of the Jedi council don't trust him and all that. Blah, blah, blah...
If I may borrow a line from the movie, Criminal Activities: "Failure to plan is planning to fail." I feel like the writers and directors did not plan Anakin Skywalker's back story well, or at all, and this largely resulted in the on-screen failure of Hayden Christensen as Anakin "Darth Vader" Skywalker.
I didn't like seeing Anakin slaughter those toddler-age Jedis in training. I thought that was too much. I thought it was over the top. I thought it was vile and disgusting, indeed that it had crossed the line of what is appropriate for a family-friendly film franchise.
I thought was an act of cartoonish evil. I even thought that not even Hannibal Lecter would do something like that. I thought that scene was lazy and an obvious, desperate attempt to infuse Anakin Skywalker with some sense of menace---given the fact that Anakin Skywalker's backstory had not been properly developed.
We were introduced to Anakin at too young an age, before he's even had time to experience darkness. Again, comparing his character to Ethan Chandler (Penny Dreadful) we can see the proper formula for the development of an origin story of an iconic character like Darth Vader.
What Ethan Chandler's character shows us is this: You must have fear of an internalized nature---fear of what you will do if you don't keep the beast chained and subdued; you must have guilt, sorrow over the damage you've caused on those occasions when the beast escaped your control; and someone to hate with all your being, someone for whom you live to avenge yourself upon.
Guilt is the bridge. Destroy the bridge and the transformation can occur.
I hope that's clear.
Thank you so much for reading!