Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele and her burgeoning romance with businessman Christian Grey. Ana is a meek, humble college student from the Pacific Northwest. Christian is a dark and secretive businessman whose company—Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc.—has made him a billionaire through ... communications or something? The film’s universe is very loosely defined––most of the supporting characters are little more than cardboard cutouts and the settings serve as little more than pretty backgrounds for Grey’s brooding and Steele’s confusion.
This all adds up, though. Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie based on a book based on a piece of fan-fiction based on Twilight, so it’s not like the plot was ever going to be that beefy. The real promise—for eager fans of the novel, at least—was in the sweet, onscreen BDSM action.
Unfortunately for those hopefuls, this kind of action never really comes. This is the root of the film’s greatest failing. Though there are quite a few sex scenes in the film, most of it is pretty vanilla aside from some bondage play with Grey’s tie and the use of an ice cube. There is one flogging scene, but this scene is so slow that it comes across as boring instead of sexy.
Most of the film is spent on talking about things that could happen. Steele could sign Grey’s contract. They could enjoy a submissive-dominant relationship. Grey could change his ways and let Steele in. None of this really happens, though—it just keeps getting hinted at. The film was made with the knowledge that it would be a success and that it would end up producing at least a trilogy—if not a four-part series with the last film broken in two parts—and so it spends much of its precious time setting things up. Fifty Shades of Grey is a perpetual first act, lacking its own independent story.
I also struggled with the vilification of Grey’s character. In the book series, Grey is legitimately a monster. He consistently breaks the rules of a sub-dom relationship by ignoring Steele’s use of the safe word, and basically rapes her in a “no-means-yes-because-your-body-told-me-so” scene. Though he attempts to make this argument at one point, he never actually acts on it in the film—which is a huge relief. Overall, he follows all of the rules of entering a sub-dom relationship in the film.
I understand that, in many cases, a relationship like the one Grey proposes would be an abusive one. Within the world of BDSM, however, everything he explicitly proposes is par for the course. The fact that we vilify Grey for openly stating his preferences and only being interested in a relationship that will meet those desires says a lot about our sexually repressive society.
The film’s core message is that Grey’s BDSM tendencies are part of a shameful disease that can only be caught by people who have dark and seedy background. It’s apparently up to an “angel” like Steele to fix his broken ways. This message is fundamentally harmful––and even hateful––to those who participate in BDSM in the real world.
Ultimately, Fifty Shades of Grey fails on all accounts. It’s flat, it’s uninteresting and it’s harmful to an already marginalized subculture. In good conscience, I can’t recommend this movie to anyone.