In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Attempting to bring objectivity to a Fifty Shades Darker review is a foolish thing to do. There is nobody on the planet who is on the fence about whether or not they plan to see it. Fans of the source novels and/or the previous film will. Everyone else won’t. No permutation of words I can sling will convince Fifty Shades fans not to check it out, and if there were any that could convince non-fans to plunk down their cash for a ticket, these are it:
“You are NOT putting that into my butt.”
Yes, that is a line from Fifty Shades Darker, the aggressively schlocky sequel to the 2015 mega-hit (which I continue to defend), based on the erotic novels by E.L. James. Where the original film found value in attempting to bring some amount of class to the source material, Fifty Shades Darker leans heavily into the pulp-eroticism of it. Let’s face it, the mainstreaming of Fifty Shades was not a result of fine prose or strong thematics – it was just a front for reading spank material on the bus. WHICH IS A REALLY COOL THING.
This is one of the reasons why the original film was such an impressive feat. The filmmakers managed to eke out a character arc for our heroine, the ridiculously named Anastasia Steele. When she breaks off her relationship with Christian Grey at the end of the film, she does so after having learned about her limits, tested the bounds of her sexuality, and ultimately having come to terms with her own strengths, weaknesses, and desires. She has grown from being a woman with a princess complex to one who takes charge of her needs and isn’t going to sell out her own agency in the name of someone else’s.
Christian, too, had an arc. He went from a closed-off, clinical practitioner of an alternative lifestyle to a man who may actually be willing to open up emotionally and engage in the compromise of a more traditional relationship. It would have been a great place to end the tale.
Buuuuuuuuut there are three books, and this means (at least) three movies. And while Fifty Shades Darker trades the softer, more feminine touch of its forbear for what can only be described as “surprisingly explicit filth,” it still swims deep enough into character work to somewhat effectively mask the fact that the base function of all Fifty Shades-based media is to titillate. Which is half the reason why accusations of the film being “problematic” don’t hold water for me. The other half is that most criticisms of this kind are in the form of someone blogging the phrase “consent issues” without any further elaboration. It’s important to note that fetishes and fantasies aren’t classically based in logic or wholesomeness — if they were, we wouldn’t be using fan-fiction-turned-mainstream-cinema as a vessel through which to speak of them. And if we’re being honest, even if they do so ham-handedly, both Fifty Shades movies have clearly taken pains to try and start a discussion about possessiveness, agency, and just what constitutes abuse. Can’t say that about The Notebook.
Anywho, Fifty Shades Darker picks up just a few weeks from where we last left our horny heroes. Anastasia is working at a publishing firm while trying to distance her thoughts from her short-lived romance with Christian. Grey, horny and forlorn, inserts himself back into Ana’s life. He’s willing to renegotiate the terms of their relationship just so long as Ana will take him back. Her terms are simple: no rules, no punishments, no secrets. Easy enough, right?
Not so for Ana, who has to deal with a possessive, rapey boss, a possessive acquaintance who silently believes himself to be “friend-zoned,” and the fact that Christian has purchased the company she now works for, putting her into an uncomfortable place of unwanted privilege in the workplace. Meanwhile, Christian is struggling to come to terms with a hinted-at childhood of abuse, and his inability to engage others emotionally.
The film plays out episodically, its faulty structure playing more like a week of soap opera entries than a fully-formed film. This highlights the feeling of “middle chapter,” which is never a comfortable place in a pre-ordained trilogy. And the shame of it all is that I AM DYING TO KNOW HOW IT ALL SHAKES OUT.
Wait. What am I saying. No shame here! My one bugaboo about the first film was its unwillingness to lean as hard into schlock territory as it could have, and Fifty Shades Darker most certainly does. There’s gunplay, a helicopter crash, drinks being thrown into faces, rich matriarchs slapping each other and saying things like “GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” There’s shower sex, sex in public, and even a scene involving the insertion and subsequent removal of vaginal beads, and it’s all, as previously noted, considerably explicit. So much so that it would have easily earned an NC-17 rating just a few short years ago. Is America finally shedding its immature prudishness? God, I hope so.
Before I go, there is one aspect of the film that I found to be a huge issue. There’s a scene which takes place at Grey’s childhood home. In it, we very clearly see a The Chronicles of Riddick poster on his wall. It’s not just empty set dressing either. It’s prominently featured in just about every shot, and kept in focus much of the time. This is definitely a choice being made by the filmmakers. Was this poster mentioned in the books? I must know, but I don’t want to do the work. I perused IMDb to see if there is a connection between these films, but I cannot find one. My theory: the darkest shade of grey is … pitch black, which is the name of the first film in the Riddick canon. Dumb, I know, but this is a dumb movie.
Oh and everyone who’s in it mostly gets it, and it’s decently well shot, and decently well-acted, and blah blah blah, and mom is gonna love it, and Happy Valentine’s Day, and at least people are reading.
Fifty Shades Darker opens in Philly theaters today.