Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 30, 2017)
While studios expect much-hyped movies to earn a substantial amount of money opening weekend, they don’t want that short time frame to account for a high percentage of the overall gross. They want these flicks to have “legs” and continue to rake in bucks over the long haul.
Looking at big hits from recent years, it seems healthy for a big movie to make about 25-35 percent of its entire gross during opening weekend. Anything more might be too “frontloaded” and imply the film couldn’t find an audience beyond “pre-sold” fans.
That seems to be what happened to 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. With a fairly small $40 million budget, the movie earned $166 million in the US and went onto a $571 million worldwide take, so it clearly made a substantial profit.
But did it attract viewers beyond the folks who already loved the original novels? Not really. In the US, Grey earned more than 50 percent of its total gross during opening weekend, which is awfully high. 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2016’s Rogue One fell in that 25-30 percent opening weekend range I mentioned, and movies don’t get more “pre-sold” than those two.
Even though it appeared that Grey did little to expand to viewers beyond the women who loved the books, it did still earn a ton of money, so the inevitable sequel appeared with 2017’s Fifty Shades Darker. With a higher budget of $55 million, it fared less well in all domains: $114 million US, $378 million worldwide.
And it looks like Darker failed to retain a lot of those viewers who propelled it to a huge opening weekend, as its $46 million launch was barely half of Grey’s. On the more positive side, at least Darker showed greater legs, as its first weekend accounted for only 40 percent of its total.
Despite the decline in profits, fans will get a third film with 2018’s Fifty Shades Freed. Will any of them feel excited about it? Maybe, but I won’t. Like the first movie, Darker provides a less than stimulating cinematic experience.
In Grey, college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) met handsome, super-wealthy businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and the pair launched into a sexual affair marked by his affection for the kinky side of the street. At the movie’s end, we found their relationship in limbo, as Anastasia’s emotional needs conflicted with their “arrangement”.
Early in Darker, Anastasia runs into Christian at a gallery, and he manages to convince her to resume their partnership. This time they’ll not go by the formal “rules” he insisted upon in the past, which leaves their path open to greater emotional intimacy.
Shadows of Christian’s past threaten this renewed connection, however. A former “submissive” named Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote) stalks Ana, and Ana grows upset when Christian introduces her to Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the older woman who acted as his ”Mrs. Robinson”.
In addition, Ana’s boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) shows obvious romantic interest in her, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Christian. All of these factors complicate Ana and Christian’s attempts at a “vanilla” relationship.
Though I disliked Grey, I held out hopes that Darker might fare better. Grey existed essentially as an “origin story”, so I thought that with all the exposition and preliminaries out of the way, the sequel might better explore the series’ possibilities.
That doesn’t occur. Maybe the franchise simply lacks the natural material to go anywhere, but whatever potential it enjoys, Darker does nothing to prosper.
As far as I can tell, Fifty Shades of Grey found an audience because it allowed middle-aged women the usual “romance novel” fare with a slightly kinky edge. Grey never actually got hardcore in any way, but its variation on the theme obviously appealed to the target audience.
Given the movie’s existence as multiplex fare, it comes with limits on how explicit it can become, and even with an unrated version on Blu-ray, Darker never truly “goes there”. As was the case with Grey, Darker barely feels “R”-rated, as it maintains a dull, lackluster sense of sexuality.
With Darker, one notable change occurred behind the camera, as it replaced Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson with James Foley. This became intriguing partly because of the gender shift, as the studio opted to shift to a male director for this female-oriented franchise.
Foley’s past also made his presence surprising. 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross remains probably his best-known film, and it’d be harder to imagine a more “guy’s flick” than that. Would Foley’s presence result in a movie with more of an edge than the soft, dull Frey?
Nope. If I hadn’t read the credits, I wouldn’t even have realized that Darker used a different director, as it comes with the deep flaws as its predecessor.
The main issue remains the abject boredom that greets the viewer. For a series that built it reputation on kinky sex, Darker seems awfully flat and safe, and not just because it can’t go hog-wild with explicit material.
No, the bigger concern stems from the one-dimensional characters and circumstances. Darker piles on plot elements, as we encounter the overriding theme of the expanded Ana/Christian relationship but also get the challenges from the various secondary characters mentioned earlier.
None of these add up to a hill of beans. All the narrative elements exist as simple window-dressing, a way to fill the time between Christian and Ana’s tiresome sexual exploits.
That doesn’t become a formula for an engaging movie, and none of the actors elevate the material. Johnson and Dornan remain attractive leads but they share zero chemistry and sleepwalk their way through their forgettable scenes together.
Darker comes with a fairly capable supporting cast, but they get left out to dry as well. As Christian’s adoptive mother, Marcia Gaye Harden brings a little spark, but she barely appears in the film, and none of the other performers shows a pulse.
All of this adds up to another snoozer of a tale. Fifty Shades Darker provides a slow, boring attempt at erotic drama that seems more laughable than exciting or intriguing.
Note that a quick preview of 2018’s Fifty Shades Freed pops up during the end credits.