REVIEW – ‘Venom’

Hollywood has been desperately attempting to successfully deliver an “anti-hero” comic book adaptation for years now. Deadpool was a roaring success, but those erring more on the villainous side, like Ghost Rider, Catwoman and Suicide Squad, have all failed miserably. When villains take centre stage in a piece of comic book cinema, it simply doesn’t work. Villains exist as antagonists. When they have no one to antagonise but themselves or other villains, it doesn’t exactly translate well to film. Now we arrive at the next overbloated attempt, with Sony Pictures launching Spider-Man’s nemesis Venom into his own solo big-screen adventure. The result is pure cinematic poison.

With a screenplay filled with glaring plot holes and woeful dialogue and a calamity of disappointing performances from its terribly underused lead actors, Venom feels like a horrendously missed opportunity. The source material is a goldmine of potentially brilliant delights. The cast is filled with amazing performers including two Oscar nominees and an Emmy winner. This could have been a sensational movie. Instead what we’re handed is a frustrating and sloppy mess of a film which can’t seem to decide on its tone, intention, or direction. This is the kind of pointless comic book film adaptation of the mid-1990s, not 2018.

Beginning with a sequence which feels achingly similar to one seen earlier this year in Rampage, an unidentified spacecraft comes crashing to Earth, landing in Malaysia with a payload of alien material known as “symbiotes,” a black seaweed-like goo housed safely within cylindrical containers. The ship belongs to the Life Foundation, headed by the nefarious Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an Elon Musk-esque billionaire magnate with seemingly good intentions to use the symbiotes to cure cancer.

The crash sparks the interest of scruffy, tattooed San Francisco investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), known for using his own cable channel news show “The Eddie Brock Report” to tackle issues affecting the common man. When Eddie is assigned a puff piece interview with Dr. Drake, he uses it as an opportunity to lampoon the entrepreneur with “gotcha” style questions, based on classified material he’s stolen from the laptop of his lawyer fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams, phoning it in for a paycheck), regarding the mysterious death of several of the Life Foundation’s test subjects.

Not only does this lead to Eddie losing his job, but Anne also breaks off their engagement, feeling betrayed by the man she loves. Six months later, and Eddie is still unemployed, even scruffier than before, and holding a grudge against Drake for ruining his life. Meanwhile, Drake has forgone his vision of curing cancer and is instead attempting to merge the alien symbiotes with humans to gain the ability to live in outer space…or something. This naturally leads to a pile of dead bodies, left from several failed trial runs. While Drake dismisses this as merely the price of scientific research, his trusted assistant Dr. Dora Skith (Jenny Slate) can no longer sit quietly.

Leaking information on Drake’s plans and his dismissal at the cost of human life he’s enacting, Dr. Skith reaches out to Eddie to help expose the foundation’s buried activities. Sneaking into the Life Foundation headquarters, Eddie uncovers the laboratory housing the symbiote goo, and, surprise surprise, it escapes and melds with his body, who just happens to be the perfect host to house the alien creature known as Venom. Now Eddie is stuck with a villainous, demonic-voiced alter-ego with a ferocious temper and insatiable appetite for human flesh.

From here, Venom jumps around between numerous narrative plot points without any shred of connectivity or flow. The storyline appears to be following the idea Venom is slowly killing Eddie from the inside out, existing within him more like a lethal parasite than a friendly guest. But soon enough, that point gets conveniently tossed aside, as Eddie forms a rather bizarre buddy friendship with the supposed villain inside him. It’s the central relationship within the film and it becomes unintentionally comical very, very quickly. One line of dialogue towards the end of the film elicited huge laughs from my screening, and I can guarantee this was not the intent the filmmakers were hoping for.

There is certainly some entirely intended comedy placed within the screenplay. Some of it absolutely lands, particularly in Eddie’s initial discovery of the capabilities of the menace hiding beneath his skin. It’s hard not to be charmed by Hardy’s bewildered expressions and exacerbations at the mayhem he’s seemingly enacting, despite having zero control over. The pair shares a constant dialogue with each other, creating some lively and entertaining interactions, typified by one scene where Eddie refuses to jump out a window and instead takes an elevator.

But Venom’s evil intentions wildly change so quickly and without any semblance of motivation or development, making it hard to accept the character as genuine or authentic. It’s the result of a screenplay which refuses to take its time for ideas and intentions to naturally progress and grow. It doesn’t help the screenplay clearly feels its audience is too dumb to notice its numerous gaping plot holes. It feels like this film desperately wants to get Venom’s origin story out of the way so it can have some bombastic fun in a sequel. It’s another disappointing example of a potential franchise looking ahead when it should be focusing on the now.

Try as they may, the impressive cast can’t save Venom either. Even the greatest actors can’t overcome a poorly written screenplay. These poor souls are handed the most atrocious, eye-rolling dialogue and there’s nothing they can do with anything they’re given. Williams genuinely seems to be trying not to laugh during several “dramatic” scenes. Her role is nothing more than the standard, bland girlfriend part without anything for a brilliant performer like Williams to sink her teeth into. A wicker basket could have played Anne and you probably wouldn’t have noticed. Likewise with Ahmed who’s given nothing to work with other than being a silly, cartoonish villain that leaves little impression.

Hardy is also let down by this film. He’s better than this and he knows it. Actually, they’re all better than this and they all know it. How did these three gifted thespians even get here? Hardy’s performance is an effort to tolerate with a character that’s really quite unlikeable most of the time. Eddie is pitched as a hard-hitting investigative journo with a talent for breaking stories no one else will touch. But Hardy portrays him as a sloppy dope who seemingly has no idea what he’s ever doing. It’s all but impossible to accept the character as its written or that someone as intelligent and sophisticated as Anne would have anything to do with him. The script sucks all the joy and life out of Eddie, leaving Hardy with very little to do but act constantly confused and perplexed, which gets old very fast.

The decision to tone this film down into a PG-13 rating is also noticeable and rather fatal. There’s literally zero blood or gore, despite several sequences where blood and gore certainly belong. The editing in these scenes is jarring, as it pathetically attempts to avoid showing any sign of the murderous acts Venom has just partaken in. When your main character literally eats someone’s head and you see none of it, you can’t help but feel somewhat let down. Just look at what freeing Wolverine from these PG-13 shackles did to that character’s performance in Logan. This was needed here and it’s ludicrous the studio heads couldn’t see it.

Venom attempts to bamboozle its way out of its narrative problems with loud and elaborate action set pieces that mostly aren’t particularly enjoyable or entertaining. One sequence featuring our titular character against a swarm of gun-toting goons is enormously thrilling but it frustratingly ends far too soon. The epic climactic battle between Venom and another symbiote character looks more akin to someone throwing barrels of thick oil into the air and hoping it looks visually impressive. It doesn’t. It’s an incomprehensible mess of CGI where you can barely tell what on earth is even happening and you’ll stop caring almost instantly.

Look, there’s probably going to be a whole stack of fans who will completely love Venom and that’s perfectly fine. Personally, it feels like a wasted chance to create something unique and different that shamefully goes begging. There’s nothing here but a noisy and dumb piece of fluff that simply isn’t trying hard enough. It’s a lazy, by-the-numbers piece of cinema that feels out of place in the world of its far superior comic book competitors. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Ryan Coogler, and The Russo Brothers have cracked the code on what makes a great comic book adaptation. Director Ruben Fleischer has taken us right back to square one with Venom.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marce
Producers: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Production Design: Oliver Scholl
Music: Ludwig Goransson
Editors: Maryann Brandon, Alan Baumgarten
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: 4th October 2018 (Australia)

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