Tom Hardy is the best thing about Sony’s latest adaptation of a Marvel Comics property. In fact, he might be the only good thing in a film so very unsure about what it wants to be. Next to Hardy, its greatest achievement may be that it at least diminishes any indication that a Spider-Man should exist in this world, one it would appear that is partitioned off from the MCU in which Tom Holland’s iteration of the web-slinger currently exists.
A rippling soundtrack and dark, grim atmosphere opens the film and remains there through to its ending. It starts with a crash-landing from outer space and a woman becoming “infected” by a symbiote, an alien organism that uses humans as hosts so long as their body can withstand it. This side note is important to the Life Foundation’s experiments with the substance, which they obtain from privately financed trips into space. The morally corrupt Carlton Drake, played by Riz Ahmed, is the head of the Foundation and is responsible for innumerable human tests that often result in the death of the subjects in order to further his research.
Drake is, above all else, a generic corporate overlord and Ahmed struggles to give any life to the character. We’ve seen it done before and we’ve seen it done better, and the trajectory of his arc is painfully predictable. Unfortunately, generic is an accurate word to describe a washed-out superhero film that shifts its tone far too often. When we meet Eddie Brock (Hardy), he’s a successful investigative journalist and is engaged to the woman he loves. We learn two things about him early on; he’s mostly carefree and goes about his job and life in that way, and he’s afraid of heights. We’re at least shown that he’s laid back in his approach to, well, every single human interaction that he has. It’s of his fear of heights though that he has to tell us quite bluntly so that it can pay off a little later on.
It takes a while for Eddie to have his fateful encounter with the symbiote, which is fine. We witness his life fall apart and watch him stumble through a few months of drinking and self-pity. As Drake continues to further his research with horrific results for his test subjects, an assistant decides to track down Brock and seek out his help in exposing Drake for what he really is. This all plays out like pins on a board, marking off objectives the film needs to complete during its scripting phase. Hardy is funny and charismatic even when he’s down on his luck, but at this point we still don’t know much of anything about him.
His assisted break-in at Life Corporation leads to a jump-scare that feels like the culmination of the most authentic use of tone in the entire film to that point. There’s an excellent horror film to be manufactured from this material, but unfortunately it’s nowhere to be found here. Eddie becomes infected with the symbiote named Venom, and so kicks off a long portion of the film in which Eddie is on the run from hired guns and Drake, who’s impressed that his product has finally latched onto a host that can handle it. Brock is so far the only one of Drake’s human sacrifices whose body can withstand Venom, though from here on it becomes a forgotten element when Venom begins infecting anything from a small dog to Eddie’s ex-fiance without any consequence to those beings once it jumps out of them and returns to its favourite host.
Michelle Williams plays Annie, a district attorney who is dragged back into the film following the breakup when Eddie seeks out her help. If ever there was a character so meaningless to a film’s storyline, it’s Annie. Williams does her best, but this character is inconceivable as a person in her own right. Quick to move on from Eddie, whom three months ago she was ready to marry, Annie is more than willing to help Eddie but fails to make her motivation at all clear. We can presume that she’s acting on the love she used to have for him, but her response to the craziness that she witnesses is laughably unrealistic. The film falls back on comedy and doubles down on it once Venom starts to rear his head, and Annie is a victim of this strange trapping. Her dialogue, among that of other characters, is a hard sell.
The most surprising and I think disappointing descriptor I can think of for the film is its campiness. Venom’s interactions with Eddie are presented like a buddy-cop scenario, which is completely at odds with the creepy, brooding vibe and visual style of the film. Venom is supposed to look scary, and you can tell. When he lifts a police officer up into the air and proceeds to bite his head off (off-screen and bloodlessly), we aren’t meant to laugh or be endeared by this beast. And yet, in his deep, reverberating voice he bickers with Eddie in jarring, unpredictable ways. These surprises aren’t the good kind in a film with little surprise to offer. Venom is also quick to become Eddie’s pal, going from user and abuser and devoted agent for the downfall of humanity to a self-confessed ‘loser’ from his home planet who is ready to fight his own kind for the safety of this world.
Venom reminds me of far better films. When the symbiote takes over the dog in the hospital, my mind jumped to John Carpenter’s The Thing. When as a substance, the symbiote leaps at the glass window keeping it locked up after exiting a dead man’s body, it’s reminiscent of moments from the Alien films. The audience I saw the film with seemed to have a good time, laughing at all the moments in which Venom would remark back at Eddie with contradiction or sarcasm. Unfortunately I couldn’t put aside the tonal clash, and while the performances are worthwhile I can’t recommend a “superhero” film with so little to offer.
Maybe ten years agoVenom may have had something more to offer than this. Instead, we are in a time where superhero films have become staples of mainstream popular culture, with a new film every few months to keep us satiated. That itself has demanded that filmmakers start to tinker with the formula, to find new ways to tell otherwise familiar stories. From that approach we’re gifted films like Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. Unlike those superbly crafted examples of the genre,Venom is sloppily written and offers little of value other than its titular character, a gimmick that gets lost in a mess of CGI in its climactic battle that seems a better visual summation of the film than any written piece can offer.
Film ’89 Verdict – 4/10
Venom is on general release in the U.K., US and Australia now.