Based on the best selling book series by E.L James, a dismayed Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson) decides to take a second chance on the man who has impressed women worldwide: the chiselled but ever-so brooding Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). In this sequel to the notorious box-office hit, a shocking turn of events get sexual very quickly, but are even the sex scenes worth the ticket price?
Notably, neither the plot nor the acting were seriously accredited in the first film of the franchise and 50 Shades Darker continues to be severely lacking in both onscreen chemistry and a clear narrative. The sex scenes resemble airbrushed perfume ads, where both Dornan and Johnson’s glamorous appearances —expect for the bulky abs and arbitrarily oiled breasts — and dispassionate performances contradict the premise of a gritty, darker expression of sexuality.
The plot, just as the sex, is white-washed and lacks a focal point. Random events are displayed and dropped as quickly as they are presented. It is unclear if the narrative arc is supposed to be Christian’s dramatic helicopter crash, where he plummets into a forest bed on his way to a work meeting with no context whatsoever. Although there is a moment of initial concern, this is quickly scrapped in the next scene where he strolls in unharmed ready for his own luxurious birthday party. Or perhaps Anastasia’s antagonism towards her sexually assaulting boss is supposed to be central to the plot, or Christian’s worry over his violent self-harming stalker. It is difficult to tell as all these issues are briskly swept under the carpet for decorative sex scenes.
Perhaps the strongest potential theme explored in the film is the tension between Anastasia’s desire for a normative ‘Vanilla-flavored’ relationship and Christian’s deviating desires due to his troubled past. ‘I’m a sadist’, he claims during what is supposed to be a key revelation in the film, explaining that he uses BDSM as a coping mechanism towards his hatred of his negligent, drug-addicted mother. On paper, this is a strong psychoanalytic theme, but is hardly presented in the film, aside from a flashback during the opening scenes. Instead we get the stereotypical sugar-coated romantic notion of the brooding rich bad boy who completely turns himself around when the woman of his dreams comes along becoming boring and generic in the process.
Obviously, the success of the first movie can be attributed to the racy sexual scenes, but also by arguably indulging in a fantasy that goes beyond conventional relationship norms. What was so gripping about the premise of 50 Shades, was the viewer’s ability to escape norms and conventional relationships and indulge in an alternative that questions the need for emotional intimacy and sheds light on supposedly deviant forms of sexuality, such as BDSM. 50 shades darker contains an oozing of materialism, beautiful actors, a multitude of narratives, and yet falls flat in terms of the substance which one can fantasise about.
Then again, as a film that was inspired by a book based on Twilight fan fiction, the franchise is doing quite well for itself, with an incredible amount of ticket sales for both 50 Shades and 50 Shades Darker. Whether the audience feels indulged in the stale fantasy is another story.