Movie Review: Alas, Poor ‘Venom’, I Knew Him Well
Tom Hardy gets infected by a playful alien parasite in Venom, a new comic book adaptation that blends story ideas from last year’s underrated Life and this year’s underrated Upgrade but bears little resemblance to the original creation.
Outside of the CGI character design, that is. Most of Venom’s budget must have went to the sleek, slithering, drooly-tongue alien-metallic look of the titular creature, because while only briefly glimpsed during most of the movie (and first appearing after an hour of runtime) it’s the one thing that feels right here.
Hardy, too, gives Venom some life as mumbly-mouthed San Francisco reporter and all-around loser Eddie Brock. He’s not the comic book version of Brock - coming in somewhere between Jim Carrey’s Stanley Ipkiss and Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan - but as the straight man to the alien symbiote’s head-munching goofball, he’s responsible for a lot of the fun here.
Otherwise, this is a by-the-numbers superhero origin story. Only the numbers don’t add up, because Venom isn’t a superhero and this isn’t much of an origin.
In the comics, Venom was actually birthed from the fortuitous meeting of the alien symbiote that Peter Parker had rejected, and the investigative reporter who blames Spider-Man for his downfall.
Unfortunately for Sony, a complicated rights deal with Marvel means that Peter Parker/Spider-Man cannot appear in this film, and thus the one key ingredient from Venom’s origin story is absent.
And instead of just leaping forward to a time when the character already exists - that comic book arc where Venom left Spidey and the Big Apple behind and went to San Francisco and (kinda) changed his villainous ways - Sony invents a wholly new origin story here, stripping out all the character motivation and injecting nothing new in its place.
What we’re left with is something of a serendipitous romantic comedy about how Eddie Brock accidentally met, and learned to love, the alien symbiote who forever changed his life.
Here, Brock is a sadsack entirely responsible for his own downfall, who loses his lucrative job and his lawyer-girlfriend (played by Michelle Williams, in a completely thankless role) in one fell swoop when he dips behind her back to dig up dirt on evil mad scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, also wasted) and confront him on his TV show.
Six months later, Drake’s top doc Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) grows concerned about the experiments she’s been conducting that pair alien symbiotes with homeless people pulled off San Francisco’s streets, and contacts Brock to come and check it out. Why not?
We’re an hour into this Venom movie, and Brock has finally met the Venom symbiote. They laugh, they fight, they bite some heads off and share a glorious makeout session. They’re a fun pair, but neither of them have any motivation to do anything villainous or heroic, and they don’t: the Venom-Brock hybrid spends the second half of the movie running away from Drake’s goons until the symbiote, for no discernible reason, decides to save the world during the final ten minutes of running time. Under what threat the world was under, I’m still not sure.
A good fifteen minutes of Venom is spent following another alien symbiote, who escapes a crash-landing in Malaysia, moves from person to person while murdering anyone who gets in its way, boards a plane to San Francisco, and finally confronts Drake during the films climax. There are other symbiotes in Drake’s lab that could have performed this story function, but we need to see this particular one’s journey… why?
Most reviews will tell you how bad Venom is, but few will tell you just how boring it is. After an hour of setup which does little more than throw Brock and the symbiote together, the final half hour is an extended action sequence. But the flat exposition - credited to a script from writers Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey), Scott Rosenberg (Kangaroo Jack), and Jeff Pinkner (The Dark Tower) winds up being more engaging that the blurry fireworks at the end, because director Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad) has no idea how to stage or edit an action sequence.
It doesn’t help that most of the action is filmed at night, in the dimly-lit woods, under the cover of fog and smoke because the studio is embarrassed to show off their CGI creation, who gets about ten minutes of squint-to-see-him screentime.
Venom, of course, should be anything but boring, and anything but hidden in the darkness. Created by Todd MacFarlane and a fan favorite for his design moreso than his backstory, the character lit up the covers of some of the best-remembered runs on The Amazing Spider-Man and attracted waves of new fans. As an 8-year-old, my first exposure to Shakespeare was Venom holding up a skull and gleefully quoting Hamlet.
A tease of mid-credits sequence introduces another fan-favorite character, and promises the kind of fun comic book sequel that Venom should have been. That’s a shame, because based on the strength of this film, a second won’t be coming.