The sequel to one of the most profitable movies from 2015 saw some controversy before its release. Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel left the franchise because of creative differences with the original novel’s author and trilogy producer, E. L. James. They were replaced with director James Foley and screenwriter Niall Leonard who is also James’ husband. The film’s stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan were also in contract disputes to return, but ultimately opted to come back. Despite all of its behind the scenes problems, Fifty Shades Darker is on-time in theaters for Valentine’s Day 2017. Although Fifty Shades of Grey was a fun and serviceable little trashy drama (my review), its sequel is none of those things.
Fifty Shades Darker picks up almost immediately after the events of Fifty Shades of Grey with Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) trying to get on with her own life after realizing that she can’t be in Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) as a kept and completely obedient submissive. Steele works as an assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson, no relation), the head fiction editor of a prominent independent publisher, while Mr. Grey is trying everything in his power to win back the affections of Ms. Steele.
Once Christian earns Ana’s trust back, they try to build a “vanilla” relationship, as a number of outside forces–Christian’s past relationships with Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote), one of Grey’s former submissives, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), his first love, and Ana’s boss (whose last name is Hyde and who becomes a monster throughout the film; I mean, c’mon)–are trying to pull them apart.
While Fifty Shades of Grey had a bit of a sizzle and featured clever sexy imagery and symbolism to get past censors (by comparison to the sequel, it’s a trashy masterpiece), Fifty Shades Darker is exactly like Christian and Ana’s begin-again relationship, vanilla and boring. The sequel lacks the bite and sleaze of a film series about BDSM sex and fetishes. It’s so safe and boring that it’s laughable to consider it risqué. Once Christian and Ana get back together, their relationship doesn’t go through any discovery or intimacy that couples share when they’re supposed to be in love. When you consider the subject matter, it’s odd to watch sex scenes that are completely devoid of any steaminess or taboo.
And worst of all, it’s not even trashy in a fun and saucy way. It’s just trash. The tone takes itself too seriously to have any fun with the material and I have to put that at the feet of E. L. James who is also the film’s producer. She got rid of a very talented director and screenwriter and replaced them with the hack director of Fear and Perfect Stranger and her husband, who has more TV credits than film. I mean, there’s a whole scene about smug book publishers realizing the importance of online self-published authors, just like E. L. James. Perhaps Sam Taylor-Johnson left the project because she understood that it’s smutty fun and developed a movie around the joys of sex and trash cinema, but with James Foley, the sequel is just too bland that it’s tough to find anything enjoyable. It’s aggressively tedious.
Although, in the last ten minutes, the film understands the over-the-top soap opera drama and ridiculousness of its story and genre (does it make me pretentious to think that a carefully placed framed movie poster of The Chronicles of Riddick in Christian Grey’s childhood bedroom might be a sign that there’s something more interesting trying to get out; I mean, why is that movie, out of all the movies in Universal Pictures’ catalog, featured in the background?) that was absent throughout the rest of its running time, Fifty Shades Darker seems like it’s supposed to be naughty and kinky, but it just comes off as self-serious without the expertise or know-how to make it worthwhile. Maybe a better director who understands trash like Rob Cohen, Paul Verhoeven, or maybe Mary Harron could’ve saved it but what we have isn’t darker, it’s just bad… in a bad way.