Friday announced the release, and for many the death knell, of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.
The film series, since its introduction to the cultural conversation in 2015, has largely been panned, ridiculed and mocked. With a diminishing critical opinion from a 25% to a 10% and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes for the second and third installments respectably, these are not films known for being good, by any means. I’m here to argue, however, that they’re also not as bad as people claim.
There must be something said for a franchise that has such sticking power to it. Here are films that have collectively crossed $1 billion worldwide at the box office, meanwhile they’re based on, of all things, a Twilight fanfiction from seven years ago. There is an inherent and perverse enjoyability to these movies. They are audacious, simply as a vehicle to bring S&M play in the bedroom to mainstream audiences and make it seem something not shameful, but instead, just another hum-drum relationship quirk to get used to. If that’s not sex-positivity, then I don’t know what is.
Yes, the latest entry, Fifty Shades Freed, is the worst in the trilogy. It is the most narratively meandering and is most guilty of cashing in on the trilogy’s tendency to be glorified music videos placed back-to-back. That is, until the last 30 minutes when the conclusion to the trilogy becomes a suspense thriller.
It’s an insane tonal shift that, honestly, when you’re watching it, you might think to yourself, “Well, why not I guess?” Thinking back, it really is what the threads of story have been leading up to all along. There’s a strain of ominous tension throughout that had to come to a head. Having said that, it’s a testament to what the first two films achieved that this plot turn becomes the least interesting part of everything we’ve watched up to this point. However it happened, we became invested in Ana and Christian as a couple and the power dynamic between them — anything beyond that is unnecessary.
There’s an acute awareness of this, however, when the final minutes of the film crescendos with the return of Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” the song which has become the trilogy’s calling card. We’re given an arguably unearned montage of Ana and Christian’s relationship, all the moments which led us to this finale. Throwing it back in such a blatant fashion and recycling the song, I couldn’t slap the stupid smile off my face. It redeemed the entire third entry and reminded us the dumb joy this trilogy elicits.
For me, the first installment, Fifty Shades of Grey, is the one film in the series that begins to approach the level of good. There are moments of direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson that really work, including the contract-signing scene and the first foray into the red room. Yes, Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey talks like he has marbles in his mouth and has the charisma of a piece of cardboard, but damn is he sexy, and that’s all he needs to be.
Meanwhile, what Dakota Johnson manages to do as Anastasia Steele opposite a scene partner giving her approximately zero is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s a performance that is wholly underrated. From the film’s first scene, when she replaces her roommate to interview Christian, the awkward demeanor and shades of self-deprecation she brings to the table are note-perfect. From this very first scene, she infuses these films with a much-needed level of self-awareness and humor.
Take for example, Johnson’s line delivery of “those aren’t going in my butt” in Fifty Shades Darker, referring to two metal spheres of pleasure that, as it turns out, don’t end up going in her butt. (They go somewhere else.) The subtle tone in which she says that one phrase makes the price of admission to endure that movie worth it. And that’s just one example. The way she engages with and occasionally defies the absurdity of Christian Grey is the heart of what makes Fifty Shades as entertaining as it is, even when it’s simultaneously one of the worst things you’ve ever seen. But how can it really be the worst thing when this is also a film where Marcia Gay Harden slaps Kim Basinger across the face?
If The Greatest Showman, while objectively bad, can be hailed as just pure pleasure and being a vehicle to provide dumb entertainment, and it succeeds as doing just that without engaging with audiences on any other level, well then, I think Fifty Shades deserves the same credit. Many might be relieved to see E.L. James’ bizarre, unexpectedly profitable, Valentine’s Day-hogging behemoth finally leaving the pop culture zeitgeist once and for all, but I for one could keep watching these movies forever.