Fifty Shades Darker continues where Fifty Shades of Grey leaves off, presenting the next chapter in the story of wide-eyed, plucky Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and her sadistic megabillionaire lover, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who in fact does not have fifty shades of anything, except possibly silk restraints. We open on the blank-faced if highly six-packed billionaire having a nightmare about his abusive childhood—because, yeah, it was a complete mystery in the first movie what those cigarette-sized burns all over his chest are. Oddly, this ham-fisted opening is one of the sequel’s more coherent parts. Apparently it is why this film is called Fifty Shades Darker because it’s not any darker than the first film; in fact, it has a conventional Hollywood happy ending. (Not to mention the other kind of Happy Ending.)
Anyway, in this chapter, Ana has moved on. Gotten a job. Her boss has a neon sign on his forehead that says, “I’m totes going to try to rape you about halfway through this film,” but, you know, nobody’s perfect. Christian shows up, begs for her to come back, says he won’t try to “dominate” her any more, that they can have a “vanilla” relationship if that’s what it takes because he’ll just simply die without her. She says “no” very firmly two times before jumping into bed with him. That’s okay, because we’re here for the sex scenes, right?
This ability to assume principled stances that she immediately abandons is sort of Ana’s defining trait in this movie. She wants independence at work. Christian buys the company, becoming her boss. She’s infuriated. Then she hops into bed with him. She doesn’t want to take the 25K check he wants to write her (because independence!), and he announces that he makes that much money every fifteen minutes. She holds firm, so Christian simply wires the money into her bank account because, for reasons that are never explained, he has access to her account data. Of course, she’s livid, and who wouldn’t be? So she hops into bed with him. Between Ana’s love for this man and her occasionally noticing and not being okay with him controlling her entire life, can you can feel the tension mounting? Okay, me neither—if we were watching a vital signs monitor someone would be pronouncing time of death and covering a body with a sheet. But again, no big—we’re here for the sex scenes. Right?
Several narratively unjustified sex scenes later, Christian crashes his helicopter and can’t be located. It’s not relevant to the “plot”, but let’s set that aside. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in a helicopter crash but from what I understand they’re pretty lethal, or at least, “hospital stay triggering.” But in a feat that requires “Jason Bourne or Rambo levels of disbelief suspension, Christian walks into his own apartment with some blood on his head, all the family well-wishers say, “Oh. Sweet. You’re not dead,” and leave, allowing Ana and Christian to have some post-helicopter-crash sex. (In the next scene, it’s as if the crash never happened.)
Oh. There’s this older woman who looks like Kim Basinger (Kim Basinger), whom Ana instantly intuits is the “Mrs. Robinson” who made Christian her “submissive” back when the words “statutory rape” would have still been relevant. She says menacing things to Ana. Don’t worry, Ana, she’s just a friend, and a business partner—her business is a hair salon!—but … let it go. We’re here for the sex.
I should also mention there is this waif-junkie-I-see-dead-people girl who shows up in an ominous way. Somehow Christian knows without having been there that she’s a disgruntled former submissive who, deprived of Christian’s magic penis and arbitrary floggings, has become suicidal. But he can’t explain why the sketchy little bitch can get into his garage and trash Ana’s car, or into his apartment to watch them sleep, or … well, she doesn’t add anything to plot. As you can guess by now, we’re going to let that go, as well. We know why we’re here.
But that’s Fifty Shades Darker’s biggest problem—the sex scenes are actually pretty boring. Beyond a couple of slightly cute moments where Ana almost admits to herself that she actually kinda likes being tied up, it’s basically all One Shade of Sex Scene.
Though it’s only fair to lay some of the blame on the script or the actors, the true culprit lies in the true object of our gaze. This film is not about experiencing a voyeuristic thrill in watching a tryst involving a wide-eyed nymphet discovering her sexual dark side and a guy with awesome lats work through some serious intimacy issues. Or rather, describing it as such is leaving out a third participant. The affair in this film version of E.L. James’ novel is not a twosome—it’s a ménage à trois, and the third partner is money. Filthy, filthy lucre. Every scene is soaked in it. You don’t have a ball gown? Here, I’ll buy thirty Monique L’Huilliers; choose whichever one you like. No, I’m choosing for you. I’m proposing to you so I’ve purchased a small tropical island’s worth of flowers and decked out the indoor pool area with them just for that moment, even though you already said yes despite the fact that I am badly damaged and abusive. Money is everywhere. Every character other than Ana and the guy who drives Christian’s car are bazillionaires. Every shot of his apartment, his office drip wealth—even the wine glasses look overpriced. Everything they do and everywhere they go is absolutely soaked in money.
From the perspective of narrative, you’ve set yourself a pretty daunting task when you have a protagonist that makes one million dollars an hour and can literally solve any problem instantaneously with his debit card, his dick or both. And the gratification by luxe sensory overload thing? It’s like the glass is full and you’re still pouring something into it even though it has already spilled over, destroying the finish on the table and staining the rug. Not only does it quickly become ineffective—it’s just plain annoying.
There’s an easy takeaway triggered by bad film adaptations: it can be very difficult to make a good movie out of a novel (regardless of the latter’s quality). Fifty Shades Darker provides a corollary to this particular truism: sometimes a fitting or “true” adaptation is nothing to celebrate.
Director: James Foley
Writer: Niall Leonard (screenplay); E.L. James (based on the novel by)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford
Release Date: February 10, 2017