Fifty Shades Darker
Directed by James Foley
Opens February 10
What do we know about Christian Grey, the enigmatic sex hero of the mutated Twilight fan fiction known as the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy? We know from the first movie that he is extremely rich, has stalker-ish tendencies that the movie considers if not deeply romantic then at least romantically intriguing, is sexually dominant, and came to his proclivities through a sexual relationship with an older family friend. And that he’s played by Jamie Dornan, who has a way of chasing Christian’s occasional smiles with expressions of confusion, as if flummoxed by any feelings of mirth.
The sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, adds some crucial details to Christian’s backstory. We hear about his dead birth mother (“She was an addict. Crack,” Christian says, like he’s in an episode of Dragnet) and meet that family friend, Elena (Kim Basinger, cleverly cast, I assume, as a nod to her erotic-thriller past), who turns up at Grey family parties far more frequently than you might expect, though it’s never entirely clear whether she’s been invited or simply lives somewhere in the walls. Perhaps more importantly, we see Christian’s childhood bedroom, bedecked with posters for UFC fights and the 2004 Vin Diesel science-fiction film The Chronicles of Riddick. This is a crucial moment in the movie, not just because Christian and his on-and-off girlfriend Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) have an emotional conversation with the Riddick poster fully visible in the background of the shot, but because it implies that at some point, Christian Grey expressed some kind of preference about something wholly unrelated to sex. (And take it from someone who owns the DVD: The Chronicles of Riddick is wholly unrelated to sex.)
Apparently in the book from which Darker has been lovingly adapted, the bedroom posters in question are for Fight Club and The Matrix, reflecting both a shift in time period (Christian Grey, a creature of the late 90s, just like me!) and Christian’s secret past as a pretty basic bro. The Riddick substitution is, on its face, a simple act of studio synergy: like Fifty Shades Darker, Chronicles of Riddick is a Universal Picture (one they apparently consider to be their Matrix). But it’s worth scrutinizing anyway because Christian seems to take so little enjoyment from his life when he’s not fucking Anastasia. He doesn’t seem to enjoy food—during an early restaurant scene, he orders for her (classic dominant sadist move!), she changes the order, and we never see them eat; during a sexy cooking scene, they get turned on before the stove does, and abandon the project for sex; during another dinner scene, they drink, and she takes off her underwear as instructed and hands it to him, but, again, no chewing. He certainly doesn’t enjoy socializing, bristling when his family invites him to gatherings and physically unable to make even the briefest of polite small talk when he goes out for drinks, by which I mean drink, by which I mean stepping into a bar and almost immediately leaving, with Anastasia and her new publishing-house boss Jack (Eric Johnson).
But he likes The Chronicles of Riddick, apparently. Or liked it at some point. Does he identify with the Riddick character, who’s pretty much out for himself and whose glowy eyes can see in the dark? (This would make Riddick especially adaptable for sexual situations, though he rarely gets into any.) Or does he enjoy the elaborate fantasy world-building, the detailed history of the Furyans and the Necromongers instilling in him his love of ultra-detailed sex contracts? Was this a mere childhood fascination that he has left behind, along with any semblance of a personality?
Chronicles of Riddick is also, like Fifty Shades Darker, the middle entry in a trilogy, though I’m assured that Vin Diesel intends to make more, while Fifty Shades will release Dornan and Johnson next year with the aptly titled Fifty Shades Freed. Quite unlike this movie, Riddick is overstuffed with incident; Darker struggles with ways to fill its two-hour running time. Christian and Ana ended the previous movie apart, but it takes just minutes for the movie to reunite them (easy enough, I suppose, when your male lead is an actual stalker). From there, much of the movie is a rhythmless slog through the Christian/Ana relationship, which consists primarily of them talking about their relationship and then getting overcome with sexual desire for some moderately compelling naked time (though kind of strange that in a purportedly kinky movie, the two main characters only ever seem to achieve orgasm in the missionary position), with a soundtrack that seems to have been selected from some MOR Spotify user’s fuck playlist. Some ancillary conflict in the form of a Bella Heathcote character who I desperately hoped would turn out to be a ghost, but alas.
About an hour of the movie takes place over the course of a weekend, which under normal circumstances I might admire, but in this case made me terrified that the movie had sent me on a never-ending couples getaway alongside two people with absolutely no interest in anything beyond themselves. (And, sure enough, it kind of had, and I started reacting like a beleaguered spouse: Do we have to go to two different parties at the Grey house? I’m starting to get a headache. Maybe Grey’s antisocial tendencies are onto something.) Last time out, Dakota Johnson was able to slip some droll line readings into the proceedings, raising questions about just how much of a drip Anastasia has to be. Here, the normal-girl observations about her weirdo boyfriend aren’t as sharp, and the sometimes-sleek look of the first movie has been tastefully, pointlessly muted. It’s not worlds of difference from the original film, but it is noticeably worse.
It could be that the material only gets worse after the novelty wears off, or it could be a change in personnel. The first film was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson with an adapted screenplay by Kelly Marcel, which made it not just the rare big-studio blockbuster with sex scenes and nudity, but the even rarer big-studio blockbuster with women in the chief creative roles behind the scenes. Taylor-Johnson couldn’t do a lot with the material, but she at least framed and blocked out the first half’s courtship with some panache, keeping the two stars from fully sharing the screen until their first kiss and using stylish lighting for a playfully written contract-negotiation scene. Book author E.L. James has apparently seen to it that no such deviations from the source material’s vacuousness will get by on her watch; the women are out, replaced by longtime journeyman James Foley as director and James’s husband as screenwriter.
Foley knows his way around sexually charged abusive relationships, having directed the Reese Witherspon/Mark Wahlberg thriller Fear, but he’s not permitted to recognize any such creepiness in Christian Grey. The movie as a whole can only contrast Grey with other levels of creepiness: Ana’s friend Jose (Victor Rasuk) is kind of creepy for taking photographs of her and displaying them at an art show without telling her first, but the movie seems to consider this form of stalking, if anything, too weak-willed. Ana’s boss Jack is on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively pursuing her from a position of power, but in a bad way, not in the good, random-billionaire way. In both cases, unwanted advances by these men are simply overridden by Christian’s financial advances, as he buys Jose’s portraits and Jack’s publishing company. Cue one of the movie’s biggest laugh lines, seemingly unintentional, as Christian downplays his decision to buy the company where his girlfriend works: “I’ve been wanting to get into publishing.” With any luck, by the next movie Christian won’t be a billionaire anymore.
Of course, that plot turn would require any sense of risk, or at least choosing a new form of vehicular sexual currency. Last time it was flying machines that got Ana hot and bothered. This time, it’s a boat, as Christian’s helicopter is saved for what the filmmakers apparently believe is a suspense sequence, when the Grey-piloted chopper goes missing for a full six minutes or so of screen time before the movie nervously moots it in the manner of a TV program aimed at very young children. Don’t worry, don’t worry! Nothing bad will happen!
The utterly pointless helicopter sequence, if you can even call it a sequence, at least makes one thing clear about the frustrations of this project. It’s not just that the Fifty Shades movies can’t achieve escape velocity from their stupid source material; it’s that they can barely differentiate themselves from their source’s source—the Twilight series. As with those movies, any faintly detectable female point of view in a middling first movie has been jettisoned in favor of a strange, tone-deaf imitation of what movies are supposed to do. Wouldn’t it be exciting if there was a helicopter crash? Wouldn’t it be romantic if there was a marriage proposal? Wouldn’t revelations from Christian’s past change everything? No, no, no, not automatically—not unless you’re so subservient to this bullshit that you don’t want to be entertained. Maybe Christian’s humorless, unfriendly, all-around lame veneer is onto something again: Maybe just rent a Riddick movie instead.