“I was being romantic and then you go and distract me with your kinky fuckery.”
The original Fifty Shades of Grey film, which awoke a nation to new desires only two years ago, certainly wasn’t a masterwork of dramatics but it had a clear line running through. How much could Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) handle of Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) BDSM lifestyle? In the end she hit her breaking point, and the sequel picks up soon after those events. In Fifty Shades Darker, the story is more difficult to parse given how no sequence or conflict naturally flows into the next. And, isn’t it pretty damn weird that Anastasia Steele is the name of the character who is the “normal, down to earth” one? Like, sure Christian Grey is a silly name but it works for the character. But with Anastasia Steele, she should have figured out this life was in store for her just by looking at her birth certificate, right?
Sorry, it’s quite easy to drift from the actual events of Darker because there’s not much of anything to hold onto in the first place. Anyway, we’ll get through this. So, Ana is trying to ignore Christian but is clearly still interested given the mildly coy smile in response to Grey’s gift of flowers. Half of this film is coy smiles (the other half is expressionless pauses between sentences). They reunite at an art gallery that, judging by appearances, is showing off the latest from Getty Images. And within half a dinner later, Ana’s smile has gone full coy. She’s back in and all it took was, uh, actually. You know what’s especially annoying about this dinner scene? Christian is an absolute dick to the waiter. Isn’t that like red flag #1 in most dating columns? In general Christian is just a massive tool for much of this film. I get it, he’s the bad boy. But I think the line there should be rudeness towards waiters and Christian crosses the fuck out of that ten minutes into the movie.
So, okay, Christian and Ana are back together. This isn’t a spoiler because nothing here is a spoiler because no sequencing of events has an impact on future occurrences. It’s like a pasted together sketch comedy film, just with the (intentional) laughs removed. Meanwhile, Ana is working at a publisher because, remember, she likes books. She is an assistant and mostly reads manuscripts and sometimes vaguely compares them to Dante’s Inferno in a line that makes the film seem like that kid in high school that would just occasionally yell the names of beat poets hoping it would garner him respect. Fifty Shades Darker actually feels in many ways like a student film that happens to have enough money to burn for nice cameras and the complete and continued waste of Dakota Johnson.
Everything that follows from Christian and Ana’s reunion is patched together as if the writer mixed up the story beat notecards and didn’t have time to correct them before the big pitch. There’s the vague threat of a woman who used to be Christian’s sub. Then she just kind of disappears for most of the movie? And while that plot does reemerge, which is by no means a promise in this film, it is quickly shuttled off again. There are a few stories that exist solely for the sake of the next sequel, a common practice in modern franchises and no less annoying here. And, that’s kind of it. Ana will get reasonably upset at Christian about certain things, but then they are kind of just continually fine. It seems like the film is on the verge of understanding this when Christian calls a simple conversation a fight. But that doesn’t matter either. Nothing matters. Fifty Shades Darker is nihilism incarnate.
Then there is a sequence so breathtakingly inept that it betrays explanation. There is a seeming tragedy that erupts out of genuinely nowhere. It is not a callback to an earlier line or situation, the wildly simple yet clearly vital technique of Chekhov’s Gun. Nothing in this event has any ties to what came before or stems from any specific character traits. Then it is solved within one scene. There is a sad speech but then everything is okay. A later speech (the third half of this movie is speeches) claims this tragedy was the cause of a life change but, without question, this life change existed previously. This is vague, though no vaguer than the screenplay’s grasp on these characters as people, but it is important that you know this before buying a ticket. The climax of Fifty Shades Darker could be removed entirely and it would have zero impact on the rest of the film.
Oh, right, there’s a lot of sex as well. It’s all antiseptic and shot without an ounce of sensuality. These scenes rely on nudity and naughtiness of BDSM to eek out attraction from the audience. But that arousal, like everything else in Fifty Shades Darker is just a gaudy magazine spread of what a person with little imagination might dream their life could be. Fancy apartments are generically fancy, nice clothes have no individual style, the songs bleed together with their banal similarities. Fifty Shades of Grey was not a particularly good film. But it at least engaged on a basic level. Darker introduces thriller elements, mystery and darker secrets but loses anything resembling coherency. There is some laughter to be earned from this complete ineptitude, and from the utterly bizarre inclusion of a Chronicles of Riddick poster in Grey’s childhood room. But there is certainly not enough to justify the ragingly dull material around the occasional hilarity. Even if they released Fifty Shades Darker in 3D, it would be the flattest film of the year.