I’ll say this. It had an effective trailer.
In this situation, ‘effective’, does not mean ‘good’ – the sight of an ten-foot slimeboy terrorising a generic criminal by likening him to a ‘turd in the wind’ recalls the cringe-inducing script of a 1990’s kids cartoon – but it does seem to sum up perfectly the overall impression Venomleaves. Toonish, ridiculous, and persistently uncomfortable.
This being the most recent from Ruben Fleischer (director of Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less), Venom constantly smashes together strange, brash humour and high stakes action isn’t much of a surprise, but it’s so tonally inconsistent that much of Venom is either spent tuning out or simply trying to make sense of the entire, strange creation.
In the throes of outer space (in the wake of the god-awful The Predator, not a fab start), a probe discovers four parasitic alien lifeforms, which bioengineering company, Life Foundation wish to use in their ongoing search for a cure for cancer. On its way back, the ship crashes, leading one of them to escape. That’s no concern to Life’s CEO, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who, discovering the symbiotes’ unique healing properties, begins illegally splicing them with human subjects with aim to create a newly hardened human race who can cope with an apocalypse everyone in the story appears to have acknowledged as inevitable.
These tests, it turns out, are a huge ethical concern, which investigate journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is keen to expose. With the help of a concerned Life scientist (Jenny Slate’s comic chops are entirely wasted in an entirely dispensable role), Brock breaks into the facility, grabs his proof and – in a scuffled attempt at jumpy horror – ends up absorbing one of the symbiotes, leaving him with muddily-animated ‘web’ abilities and an insatiable appetite for human heads, along with a hallucinatory voice that calls itself ‘Venom’.
With effectively the same premise as Upgrade, Fleischer’s superhero spin-off opens itself more than once to unflattering comparisons with superior work. Upgrade was a gritty, cohesively structured exploitation of humanity’s self-destructive desire to become more,while Venom swings so rapidly between high-stakes action, disjointed slapstick and lodged attempts at romance that it’s impossible to have a sincere response.
The script is barely passable and suffused with the sort of awkwardly crass humour of a 1990’s B-Movie. “Pussy”, “turd” and “loser” are about the most cutting insults scriptwriters Kelly Marcel, Jeff Pinkman and Scott Rosenberg can offer Venom, and there’s little to no motivation for doing so other than the frightfully misjudged one of it being ‘funny’. Characters are also afflicted with this that Riz Ahmed tries his best to breathe life into his hollow corporate antagonist, but his attempts at ‘Frankensteinian’ megalomania are pulled down by sweaty comparisons to Planet of the Apes and, weirder still, Fight Club. Again, recalling better films.
The most palatable sequences are those that rest on Tom Hardy’s wild performance. Indeed, it’s almost worth the price of admission to watch Brock devour endless amounts of crustacea as he cools off in a gourmet lobster tank, or as he desperately tries to talk his enemies down while his arms flail jerk upward like some anxious Pinocchio. But even though Hardy’s recognisable twitchiness suits a protagonist suspended in a constant state of malfunction, it’s never really clear whether these scenes are funny within the context of Brock’s situation, or because Hardy seems as bemused by the plot as we are. Onlyalmost worth it.
Laughter comes as a result of awkwardness than any comic veneer. The oddest of bromances develops as Venom observes Brock’s continued love for Anne (Michelle Williams is – like Slate, frustratingly underspent), ultimately becoming an interior wingman, whose love advice is made all the more perplexing by the fact it works.
That’s only one example of the film’s oddly warped logic. We’re supposedly meant to sympathise with Eddie as he uses his girlfriend’s lawyer credentials to get close to Drake, and Anne’s inevitable change of heart toward him carries no clear reason other than that there’s an alien inside him. And I have a veryhard time believing an alien supposedly pursuing its best interests would grow quite so quickly protective over an Earth on its way to self-collapse.
It’s not just that the jokes don’t land. From its hacked-together CGI-heavy fight scenes to its truly cringeworthy romantic endeavours, Venom makes so little sense that perhaps its one saving grace is that many will enjoy riffing on it. What sprang so hopefully toward the Spider-Man: Homecoming universe seems to have stumbled into The Amazing Spider-Man 2; let us hope the now confirmed Carnage sequel will save this spinoff series from its own symbiotic self-destruction.