When it comes to Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, there are, essentially, two popular schools of thought: He was bad in the movies and ruined the already wonky prequels, or, he was bad in the movies but it wasn’t his fault and we still love him. But what if there is a third option? Arguably, for a portion of the population, Hayden’s Anakin was good, but for entirely subjective reasons. And because a specific generation of Star Wars fans still holds a torch for Hayden Christensen, we’ll be devastated if we don’t see him in The Rise of Skywalker. Here’s why.
As a rational human being, I can tell that Hayden’s performance as Anakin alternates between melodramatic and unrealistic. But, as someone who was 21 years-old when Attack of the Clones hit theaters in 2002, Hayden Christensen’s take on Anakin Skywalker was a genuine reflection on what it felt like to become a grown-up. I imagine other fans of the series who are roughly my age (late thirties, early forties) feel the same way. In Star Wars, we’re caught between the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy, and in real life we’re caught between Generation X and Millennials. You’d think my generation would mostly have identified with Luke Skywalker, but that’s not really true. If you were a grade-school aged kid in the ’90s and drinking your first beer in the early aughts, the angst of Anakin was a clear and present touchstone.
This isn’t exactly a good thing, but it is true. I was born the same year as Hayden Christensen, and like a lot of Star Wars fans my age, I felt a kinship with him for this reason. This is hard to believe now, but in the summer of 2002, I threw a Star Wars party at my parent’s house (they were out of town, my apartment sucked, they had a pool) and everyone there totally loved Attack of the Clones. I remember one woman quoting Anakin, sneering “I’m taking him now!” before pushing a friend of hers playfully into the pool. Lightsabers were swung, people complained about slaughtering Tusken Raiders, and generally speaking, everyone acted like Star Wars was back. If you were in your early 20s when Attack of the Clones came out, Hayden Christensen didn’t ruin the prequels; he saved them.
Part of this, I think, is the fact that he wasn’t actually cool. You could argue that Hayden is “hot,” conventionally speaking, but his character is crazily unlikable in both of the prequel films that he’s in. At the time, this didn’t seem like a mistake. After all, this was the guy who became Darth Vader, he should seem like a weird self-entitled asshole, right? No one wanted to actually be like Hayden’s Anakin, but I think some people just on the verge of trying to adult for real, probably worried they were like Anakin. He says all the wrong things to someone he likes, he thinks he knows more than all of his teachers, and, often, he drives really, really fast. What’s a community college drop-out like me not to love?
Fast forward to 2019. Now we’re on the verge of this whole saga wrapping up, and Anakin’s last name is in the title of what may be the last Star Wars movie for at least a few years. For me, the idea of Anakin, as specifically depicted by Christensen, is inexorably wrapped up in the difference between wanting to be an adult, and actually becoming one. The story of Anakin Skywalker is many things, but perhaps the one most relevant is the fact that he simply fails at becoming a functional adult. Some of this is not his fault. His job gaslights him. The leader of the entire galaxy gaslights him. He doesn’t have a good therapist. He’s sexually repressed, etc. None of this excuses killing all the Younglings and becoming Darth Vader, but if you’re 22-years-old, and kind of confused about what do with your life, Anakin seems really relatable. He’s like the walking personification of that Blink 182 song, “Damnit.” He’s not sexy emo like Kylo Ren. Anakin is just a fuck up.
For those of us who remember what it was to feel like Anakin at the same time Anakin was in the movie theaters, not seeing Hayden Christensen return for a key cameo will be very, very painful. People talk a lot about how Star Wars changes childhoods or affects adolescence, but almost no one acknowledges that the prequels, and Hayden Christensen in specific, had a profound influence on the early adulthoods of millions. Obviously, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala was the better role model in the prequels, but because even she—the smartest person in those movies—fell in love with Anakin, the prequels were saying something really honest about what being in your early twenties is really like. All you do is make mistakes while talking about how you’re going to fix those mistakes.
Anakin, of course, does fix his mistakes with the help of his children. As someone who has a little Jedi running around my house now, I get this. And now The Emperor is resurgent. But Anakin has grown. We have grown. And we want to see this in Rise of Skywalker or… well, the movie isn’t really giving us the “rise” of Skywalker, is it?
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume 2015.) His other writing and criticism have been published in Inverse, SyFy Wire, Vulture, Den of Geek!, the New York Times, and StarTrek.com. He is an editor at Fatherly. Ryan lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Maine.