Sometime in the two years between the release dates of Fifty Shades of Grey and its boneheaded sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, I forgot what the actual experience of sitting through that first movie was like. I forgot the nonsensical story, the leaden pacing, the tedium of watching Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson bloodlessly perform their synthetic lust. In my memory, Fifty Shades became a dim montage of blindfolds and bull whips, acquiring all the eroticism the movie did not have. And so I will admit that I was eager for the next installment. But as soon as Fifty Shades Darker kicked off to the opening strains of a whispery Coldplay cover, it all came flooding back. Here we are again: watching two anatomical marvels writhe meaninglessly in the moonlight, like a burlesque performed by bots.
Despite having a different director—James Foley, noted schlockmeister behind such psychosexual romps as Reckless and Fear, has replaced Sam Taylor-Johnson—Fifty Shades Darker is very faithful to its predecessor’s vision. That is to say, it is another terrible movie with just the slightest whiff of self-awareness about how terrible it is. Once again, for every inventively choreographed bedroom caper, there are three that are about as sexy as a Geico ad. And though the film now has a male director instead of a female one, its gender dynamics feel directly imported from Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s another equal-opportunity objectification fest with a camera that lingers just as avidly on each of Dornan’s abs as it does on Johnson’s nipples.
But Fifty Shades Darker is distinct in a few key ways. Now gazillionaire dom Christian and plebeian sub Anastasia are in a committed relationship; in the absence of the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic, the movie introduces clunky new obstacles like stalker submissives from Christian’s past and a creepy boss for Anastasia, who’s now an assistant at a publishing house. The best parts of the original—the piecemeal unveiling of Christian’s extravagant life, the reveal of the Red Room, the logistics of the BDSM negotiation—have been swapped out for an earnest tale of deepening mutual love that feels more far-fetched than the marriage in Chef between Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara.
The “how” and the “why” of Christian and Anastasia’s reunion is ruthlessly dispatched, in case you even remembered that at the end of the previous movie she’d dumped him for some boring reason. Within the first 20 minutes or so of Darker, they’ve run into each other at a photo exhibition, he’s bought a bunch of photos of her face at said exhibition, they’ve had dinner, they’ve had sex, she’s stopped being mad, and they’ve embarked upon a serious monogamous partnership. As they safari through the veldt of his billionairehood, lounging in his marble penthouse and attending masquerade balls and accepting house calls from hairdressers, Anastasia persists in her project of trying to get him to open up to her.
To be clear, nothing in this movie makes any kind of emotional sense; there is zero narrative foreplay. Every twist and turn serves as a mere occasion to showcase the bottomless depths of Anastasia’s arousal. One sequence begins with a helicopter crash and ends moments later with Anastasia cooing “I was so scared” into Christian’s ear. His dark past—sketched via cursory flashbacks to his childhood with a drug-addicted mother—is revealed only as a pretense to make Anastasia want to bone him more. Each time he offers up a new morsel from his backstory, she gratefully straddles him.
The main problem with Fifty Shades Darker is one that afflicts Fifty Shades of Grey, too. The spectacle of kink has diminishing returns, particularly where these two are concerned. Dornan’s Christian continues to have all the charisma of a butt plug. And Anastasia, especially in light of Johnson’s considerable natural charm, is a real bummer. This movie wants to make sure we understand that she’s an independent lady who knows what she wants—we are reminded many times that she doesn’t “do as she’s told”—but in fact she always does as she’s told. Even as she eye-rolls and sasses Christian, there is no demand with which she ultimately declines to comply, from skipping out on her work trip to committing to spend her life at his side. The main difference between Anastasia and the string of dead-eyed “subs” from Christian’s past is that sometimes Anastasia says no before she says yes.
But you do sort of have to admire the expediency with which each scene of Fifty Shades Darker hustles its protagonists through three minutes of rote dialogue, rips off their eveningwear, and arranges them on Christian’s silky sheets. The movie is best when it leans into its smuttiness instead of trying to pad it out with pathos. All the glimmers of self-consciousness are delightful, like when Christian ravenously throws Anastasia over his shoulder as they walk past his seen-it-all maid. And two particular sex scenes are the highlights of the movie: one featuring two metal balls that Christian artfully places inside Anastasia (and then later removes); the other involving ankle cuffs attached to an expandable bar. At one point Christian grabs the bar and flips Anastasia onto her back like a hamburger patty. These sequences are both outrageous and hot. Their microdrama contains everything the movie overall lacks—momentum, suspense, an arc. They portray BDSM as something that can apparently be consensual and fun even (or perhaps especially?) when it means having your legs force-spread by a rod. And next year when Fifty Shades Freed is released, they might just be what I remember. That’s the mind-game these movies have mastered: Despite all the crap you have to put up with, you come back begging for more.