Directed by James Foley. Produced by Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Dana Brunetti, and Marcus Viscidi. Written by Niall Leonard. Release date: February 10, 2017.
Is there a better way to spend Valentine's Day than with a Fifty Shades movie? After all, what better movie to make your relationship - or lack of one - seem great than by comparing it to the dumpster fire contained within this franchise. Oh, sure, maybe the characters care about each other - but so do hairspray and an open flame. And only people not mature enough to be in a real relationship think those two things go together.
Fifty Shades Darker is the second movie in a franchise that is based on a novel series that was initially conceived as Twilight fan fiction - and its screenplay has been written by the books' author's husband; I'm not kidding. The first film (and book, I presume) had a lot of similarities to Twilight, although the sequel seems to deviate from that template. Does that make it better? Not really, no, although at least this one has a sense of humor about itself and one of its protagonists isn't a creepy, sadistic stalker for most of its running time. No, this one's villain set-up is a creepy stalker! The tables have been turned! Look at that depth!
This movie follows Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who now has a job as an editor's assistant at some publishing company. Her boss is Jack (Eric Johnson, no relation to Dakota - as far as we know and hope), who is the cool kind of boss that lets you call him by his first name and probably won't try to sexually assault you later unless he gets jealous of your maybe-boyfriend. That maybe-boyfriend is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a gazillionaire who never actually does any work and since the last movie - where at the end the two protagonists go their separate ways - has been missing Anastasia and been having horrific flashback nightmares about abuse he suffered as a child - abuse that he told Anastasia about while she was sleeping, because that's how communication works (this movie comments on that).
So, he wants her back. She doesn't really want to go back - something about too much paperwork and physical and mental abuse, I dunno - but he's changed! So they get back together. Whether or not they'll stay together is one of the primary conflicts of the film. The others are: (1) one of Christian's former girlfriends (Bella Heathcote) is stalking both her former beau and Anastasia, and we don't know why; (2) the woman who abused Christian as a teenager (Kim Basinger) who is now his friend and business partner (what?) and doesn't approve of his relationship with Anastasia because of reasons; and (3) Anastasia's boss may or may not be an evil monster.
I absolutely expected to hate Fifty Shades Darker. It turned out to be bad, but not rage-inducingly bad.
You know what? Having a couple of different things going on already makes Fifty Shades Darker better than its predecessor. The first movie was terrible, of course, but it was also painfully boring. This one, at its worst, at least has some things to do. Add in a new-found sense of humor, a bit more character depth and development - particularly on the part of Christian - and a turned down creepiness factor, and Fifty Shades Darker is almost watchable. A continued progression at this rate would actually make the promised final film a passable waste of time! If we could only get so lucky!
Is the romance still bland? Absolutely! Is the drama so laughable that it's impossible to take anything as seriously as the author intended? Duh - although this one laughs at itself a few times, which was nice. Is the sex still very much unsexy? That's a big 10-4, good buddy. But, you know what? It's not the worst thing out there. It doesn't deserve as much critical lambasting as the original received, and if I were forced to sit through it again, I'd probably get through it without any permanent damage.
I think that's because everything was played safer - it's a more "vanilla" movie, which is actually how Christian describes a potential second chance relationship with Anastasia. By adhering closer to genre formula, it becomes far harder to become extremely good or bad. For the most part, this is a pretty generic movie. Yeah, it has more nudity than most in its genre, but beyond that? It's just kind of bland. It's hard to hate dull; it's difficult to generate that strong of an emotion.
I absolutely expected to hate Fifty Shades Darker. It turned out to be bad, but not rage-inducingly bad. That makes it an improvement on its predecessor. It has a sense of humor, more than one dull plot thread, a little more depth to its characters, and doesn't have its supposed "good" character act like a creepy stalker for most of its running time. It's still impossible to take seriously, indifferently acted, often incredibly stupid, and not emotionally or intellectually engaging, but baby steps, right?
Bottom Line: Better than the first one, but still not really any good, Fifty Shades Darker is too timid to be worth genuine ire.
Recommendation: Don't see it. Even to have a laugh. It's not worth the time.
If you want more of Matthew "Marter" Parkinson, you can follow him on the Twitter @Martertweet.