It is, as they say, what it is. Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the critically panned but fan-loved Fifty Shades of Grey, will likely satisfy those who liked the first film (or the books upon which the movies are based) while distancing everyone else. This is a bad film — at times it’s nigh unwatchable — but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Fifty Shades Darker was developed with a narrow audience in mind and the producers don’t care whether anyone outside of that group sees or enjoys the result. In order for the film to work on any level, it’s necessary to have read the books. Character development on screen is non-existent. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are attractive avatars used to playact sex scenes. To relate to Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, it’s mandatory for a viewer to bring something to the movie. Otherwise, the result will be utter boredom.
There isn’t much of a plot. After breaking up at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, the couple must be reunited. Despite Ana’s determination that a relationship with Christian is bad for her health, it takes all of a 15 minute dinner conversation before they’re kissing. Then, irrespective of a decision to "take it slow", they’re having "vanilla" sex before the movie is 20 minutes old. After that, Fifty Shades Darker is essentially a chronicle of the ups-and-downs of their relationship until the inevitable marriage proposal. Along the way, we get subplots involving the appropriately named Mr. Hyde (Eric Johnson), who’s Ana’s boss at an indie publishing firm; Christian’s ex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger); and a girl who appears to have wandered in from a horror film. There’s also a helicopter crash that generates less tension than a slack rubber band.
The BDSM elements have been toned down. The sex here is never rough and only occasionally a little kinky. There are ben-wa balls, blindfolds, and little light spanking — nothing outrageous or outside the scope of couples interested in "spicing up" their sex lives. The film’s erotic content is better than in the first film. The characters have marginally stronger chemistry and the movie is more interested in showing off their bodies (although we see neither The Full Johnson nor The Full Dornan, for those who are curious). The "bedroom" scenes (which only occasionally occur in the bedroom) are the only times, in fact, when the movie becomes engaging. They happen frequently enough to keep viewers awake who may be tempted to take naps.
The character dynamic between Ana and Christian has changed. She’s still as squishy and unformed as in Fifty Shades Grey but he has been softened. Their relationship echoes a standard from a bygone era: she’s the pretty girl who falls for the strong, alpha male. The dom/sub stuff is glossed over or explained away. Christian has turned over a new leaf. His tendencies aren’t the result of his true self but were cultivated by Elena and are related to childhood incidents. I’m not going to get into the film’s psychological inadequacies but I can imagine a professional therapist needing an ophthalmologist to repair the damage done by too much eye-rolling.
Kudos to Johnson and Dornan. These are two courageous performers. Not only do they engage in convincing simulated sex while displaying everything except what’s between their legs but, more impressively, they handle reams and reams of godawful dialogue. Okay, so most of the time Johnson delivers it in a monologue and Dornan has a tendency to growl his lines but they get through it without falling asleep or breaking into laughter. Meanwhile, Johnson completes his transformation from white-hatted hunk to mustache-twirling villain without skipping a beat and Basinger makes everyone forget that she was once the star of her own soft-core erotic movie. Where’s Mickey Roarke when you need him?
Fifty Shades Darker is probably one slight shade better than Fifty Shades of Grey. Although the movie’s aesthetics are different (resulting from James Foley displacing Sam-Taylor Johnson in the director’s chair) and the script is substantially worse (E.L. James’s husband, Niall Leonard, ensures that his wife’s purple prose is retained), the actors seems more comfortable, the sex scenes are hotter, and the movie runs 10 minutes shorter. Ultimately, none of that matters and I understand that. Film quality isn’t an issue for those who plan to watch this. That’s a good thing because if it was, Fifty Shades Darker would have a dim home-viewing future indeed.