‘Fifty Shades’ series peters out

It’s so visually boring! The only striking images associated with this movie are the posters. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

2/10 So this is where Harry Potter ended up. It’s kind of astonishing to think about it in those terms, but when you take everything else about the past 20 years into account, doesn’t that seem right?

With the series routinely smashing records on opening night, publishers started to focus heavily on a young teenage market that clearly hadn’t been explored to its full extent. The next real landmark in that line was Twilight, which narrowed the audience to teenage girls, and from that came Fifty Shades of Grey.

Almost 21 years after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone took bookstores by storm, the third movie in its grandchild series, Fifty Shades Freed, hits theaters. Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) and Ana Steele-Grey (Dakota Johnson) are young newly weds enjoying their vast fortune, but can’t honeymoon for long. Steele-Grey’s old boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), whose career was derailed after he tried to rape her in the previous installment, is back for revenge against each of the Greys individually and with a surprising amount of resources at his disposal. The marriage is also threatened from within by an extremely unwanted pregnancy, which causes them to fall back into communication problems they never really moved past.

Unlike Fifty Shades Darker, which, ugh, Fifty Shades Freed at least has a narrative throughline, and a pretty strong one at that. In order to deal with their external problem, Hyde, the Greys must first handle their internal problems. When you take into account that the two books were written as one story and then awkwardly cut in half in the middle because author/producer E.L. James had no idea what she was doing, this makes sense. And hey! They only stop for extended, impossibly boring sex scenes every 20 minutes or so, instead of the usual 10,  and both actors are actually pretending to be into it this time. These are low, low bars, but they didn’t clear them last time, so bravo.

It’s always at least a little fun to watch a movie based around interpersonal power dynamics. James has an incredible inability to grasp the nuances in her own stories — it is James in the driver’s seat here, she brought in James Foley and her own husband, Niall Leonard, to direct and write after Sam Taylor-Johnson and Kelly Marcel did their best to make the first movie interesting — so Fifty Shades Freed doesn’t advance beyond that little bit, but if you’re game, it can still be a fascinating experience.

As Hyde’s stalking becomes more and more intense and Grey’s paranoia becomes more and more appropriate, Steele-Grey’s disobedience stops being their playful female power fantasy and starts coming from a genuine lack of respect for her husband and the seriousness of their situation, and for a few scenes, she starts to become the bad actor in their relationship.

This leads into the series finally popping its cherry with the first sex scene that actually relates to what’s going on in the plot. After Steele-Grey switches up her plans and is out all night without telling him, and then is nearly kidnapped entirely by coincidence, Grey takes her to their bondage room and pleasures her but denies her orgasm. While that’s a thing, in this case it’s a remarkably cruel display, using sex as punishment.

They’ve kept that red and silver motif through the series. So that’s nice, at least.

Movies portray a heightened version of reality, and I think that’s where the entire Fifty Shades series goes wrong. The characters are all extreme, but the reality they occupy is drab. Grey is really just a sadboi — his mother abandoned him and he was sexually abused as a minor, so he’s not just moping, he’s got some legitimate things to work through. But that’s heightened with all his wealth and kinky fuckery. Where most relationships have a loose sort of negotiation at the start over the dynamic they will take, Grey has this creepy rape contract he makes his partners sign. All of Steele-Grey’s other suitors are heightened into rapists or sex pests themselves, and she is presumably taken to an extreme in their minds.

But the world they live in is dull. Their conflicts, the kinds of relationship conflicts that should seem apocalyptically dramatic when they’re happening to you — or your perspective characters, in this case — seem like minor inconveniences. Even when Hyde tries to kidnap and rape Steele-Grey, it seems like no big deal.

I’m left again with this horrible feeling that the building blocks are in place and that Fifty Shades Freed could have been a pretty good movie with more thought and effort put into it.

Must have run out of that in the past 20 years.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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