Hayden Christensen: A Cautionary Tale in the Industry

There is an apt comparison to be made between the turn of the century, and the career of Canadian actor Hayden Christensen who, at the time, was looking to be Canada’s next big export: both brought the initial promise of great things, only for the wonder to all but fizzle out midway through the first decade. It would, however, be unfair to single out Christensen for the gradual deflation of his own career, or to even indicate that he is still not active in the industry today. Instead, his is cautionary tale on just how tumultuous and unforgiving the Hollywood film landscape can be.

Christensen, like any other actor trying to make a name for himself in the industry, worked a number of TV and film roles that steadily grew in significance, before achieving resounding acclaim for his performance in the 2001 film Life as a House. Everything seemed to be lining up for Christensen, as his handling of the role should have silenced any critics of his casting as a young Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader) in Star Wars: Episode II the year before, which for any up-and-coming actor would be the role of a lifetime, right?

Wrong. Christensen’s performance earned widespread derision not just from the critics, but more importantly from the legions of fanboys, many of whom now consider George Lucas’ prequels an affront to the very Star Wars legacy he created. I too found Christensen’s performance to be flat and uninspired, doing little justice to origins of what is one of the most iconic villains in the history of cinema.

Yet, a great deal of the blame should not be aimed at Christensen, but instead George Lucas, who both wrote and directed all three of the prequel films. Lucas himself has admitted that screenwriting is not his strongest suit, which is on full display in the prequels (need I even mention the “I don’t like sand” scene?). And while Lucas’ direction at least plays to his strengths in world-building and large-scale CGI action, the quieter dramatic moments are ham-fisted, being handled with all the subtly of a sledgehammer, but with none of its weight.

One need only look to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film Creed for an opposing example of what Star Wars did for Christensen, and the importance of the creative forces behind the camera. Spanning his career, Sylvester Stallone has accumulated more Razzie Award nominations than any other actor (though Adam Sandler, bless his heart, seems to be going for this record now), yet he earned more acclaim for reprising his role as Rocky Balboa in Creed than arguably any other in his career (including his 1976 debut as the cinematic boxing icon), very nearly earning his first Oscar in the process. How did Stallone respond to all this praise? By redirecting it all towards Coogler’s direction, which was accompanied by a strong script the talented filmmaker also co-wrote.

Stallone’s career has survived all his past duds for a number of reasons I cannot get into, but two worth mentioning here is, first, how established he was in the industry from the success of his first major role; and second, his subsequent recognition as an action icon in films like First Blood and Cliffhanger. Christensen, on the other hand, made his first real mark in a movie that received very little commercial exposure, and followed this with the role which audiences, unfortunately, remember him for. What’s more, the actor earned further praise for his role in Shattered Glass, which was released after Episode II (again, to little commercial recognition), but then followed this up with Episode III, giving another misguided performance, which ensured that the ink blot used to define his career was dry.

So when all is said and done, Christensen, who had already proven himself a capable actor, is given little to work with from the film’s creative lead, while Natalie Portman’s uncharacteristically stiff performance as Princess Amidala only adds weight to Lucas’ missteps. Yet, it was Christensen’s career that took the brunt of negative impact, as Portman is still going strong with an Oscar under her belt, all the while Lucas sold his production company Lucasfilm (and the rights to Star Wars) to Disney to the tune of $4 billion.

As I mentioned earlier however, Star Wars did not completely erase Christensen off the Hollywood map. Following his Star Wars tenure, Christensen was cast as the lead in Doug Liman’s 2008 film Jumper, which did find box office success, albeit with very little love from critics. He continued to take on other roles down the line, though not always in the lead, and with smaller budgets and noticeably less talent behind the camera.

None of this necessarily makes Christensen’s career a failure, as there is an army of actors out there who would kill for even one of the lowly supporting roles Christensen might be taking on occasion today. To his credit, the actor managed to snag one of the leads in rom-com king Donald Petrie’s Little Italy, which is filming in Toronto at the moment. Instead, Christensen’s career today is a shadow of what could have been. Given the right roles, the actor could have found greater major role success with the critical and commercial heavyweights of Hollywood, but was unfortunate enough to accept an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up, and has been left to pick up many of the pieces ever since.

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