Fifty Shades of Grey was a kinky sex movie that was neither kinky nor sexy, and featured an abysmal lack of chemistry between its two leads. If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, you were wrong, because we now have Fifty Shades Darker, which exacerbates the problem by trying to forge a romantic relationship between two characters who have no business being together. James Foley’s adaptation of E.L. James’ novel tries to pass off a completely toxic relationship as something healthy and profound, and instead it just makes the audience either laugh or cringe. Rather than creating a unique love story, Fifty Shades Darker seems like it hates just about everyone.
At the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) left Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) after his BDSM kink became too violent for her to handle. But Christian decides he can’t be without Anastasia, and resolves to give her the “vanilla” relationship she wants if they can be together again. She reluctantly agrees, and although Christian remains as possessive and domineering as ever, she gently pushes back against his revolting personality. Their rekindled relationship is made more difficult by the presence of Leila (Bella Heathcote), one of Christian’s former subs who is stalking Anastasia, and by Elena (Kim Basinger), the older woman who turned Christian on to kinky sex.
However, these new subplots rarely emerge or make much of a difference in Anastasia and Christian’s relationship. They feel like stuff that was in the novel, James demanded that they be included, and screenwriter Niall Leonard (who happens to be James’ husband) kind of tossed them in without any real idea on how to give them an impact. Leila pops up and then disappears for long stretches of the film. Elena was teased as a major figure in Christian’s life in the first movie, but the sequel doesn’t really seem to know what to do with her beyond a couple terse conversations with Anastasia.
But where Fifty Shades Darker really falls apart is in trying to sell us on the notion that Christian Grey should be with anybody. As bad as the first movie is (and it’s quite terrible), it doesn’t try to pass Christian off as a good dude. It puts the kink front and center so that’s it a sex movie more than a love story, and while it fails at being sexy, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t pretend that there’s any romance between its two leads (which is good because Johnson and Dornan have zero chemistry).
By comparison, Fifty Shades Darker wants to convince us that there’s love between these two characters, and yet their personalities are out of sync. You can’t tell me that Anastasia is a strong, independent woman who makes her own choices and she’s with a guy as controlling, insecure, and domineering as Christian. Christian is a bad guy, and obviously so. He’s emotionally abusive, rude, and insecure. If your boyfriend comes with you somewhere, and introduces himself to your boss as, “I’m the boyfriend,” dump that guy. Time and again, Christian shows that he wants to possess Anastasia, and she treats it like a faux pas rather than the deep character flaw that it is.
Without any investment into the central relationship, it’s easy to focus on the myriad of flaws and curiosities that permeate the rest of the film. For example, much has been made of the fact that Christian’s childhood bedroom has a Chronicles of Riddick poster on the wall, which is surprising because even Vin Diesel probably doesn’t have a framed Chronicles of Riddick poster. But it’s one of the few things that actually humanizes Christian, and I would believe that a sulking little shit like him would have liked the 2004 film enough to have the poster on his wall.
At least this detail is charming, as opposed to one where Anastasia, working as an editor for a publishing company, has a meeting with her bosses where she exalts the work of online authors. For those who don’t know, James started out as an online author, so she basically made sure there was a scene in the movie that congratulated her on her work. Say what you will about Twilight, but at least no one in that movie says, “Boy, Mormons who write young adult fiction sure are great!” But that’s the kind of film Fifty Shades Darker is: one where the story will stop dead in its tracks so that the author can take a victory lap.
For a movie that isn’t sexy and isn’t romantic, Fifty Shades Darker fails completely at everything it tries to do. Johnson is still giving it her all, Dornan looks like he’d rather be getting his teeth drilled, and the whole enterprise is still a gigantic waste of time. Even though the series might rest on kinky sex, the Fifty Shades franchise shows that it’s surprisingly conservative in its values. Christian is in to kink because he was physically abused as a child, and really the goal for all people should be to settle down and get married. Fifty Shades isn’t about learning different lifestyles and crafting unique characters as much as it’s trying to pass off a toxic romance as an aspirational ideal.