Set in San Francisco, we follow the exploits of scrappy and unscrupulous investigative reporter of some notoriety, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, The Revenant), played with manic aggressiveness from Tom Hardy. Michelle Williams plays Eddie’s fiance, at least at the onset, an up-and-coming lawyer named Anne. Eddie’s latest scoop takes him to a highly advanced bio-tech corporation called the Life Foundation, run by the seemingly amoral founder and CEO Carlton Drake. Brock is trying to get to the bottom of their unethical activities, and lands a big interview with the head, but Drake is quite powerful in his influence against his actions, resulting in Eddie losing his job, his fiancee (from whom he stole confidential information to use for his piece), and his reputation. Things seem like they will continue in a downward spiral, at least until an employee who is disturbed by Drake’s murderous tactics turns whistle-blower, allowing Brock secret access to the Life Foundation laboratories, where he inadvertently becomes the host for one of the goo-like but aggressive test alien symbiotes they’ve had under wraps, who calls himself “Venom”. Eddie can use Venom to get his life back on track, but he needs to feed on living things for them to sustain themselves, which is something even the morally troubled Eddie is not comfortable with, but the symbiote will take to consuming his most vital organs if it doesn’t get its fill elsewhere. To make matters worse, Drake is out to snuff him out at any cost, and has plenty of foot soldiers at his disposal to make sure it gets done.
It’s not the first time that Venom has been on the big screen, making a dubious debut in the third and final of the Sam Raimi trilogy of Spider-Man films in the mostly awful Spider-Man 3, in which Topher Grace’s lackluster turn would prove to be just one of three villains vying for a small amount of screen time. Venom was particularly unappealing in that film, though a fan favorite otherwise, so there’s much anticipation that they might do the character right if they could give the concept for the character his due with enough room to explore the character in full. As a longtime Spider-Man fan, I’ll get a couple of things off my chest that bother me about this interpretation of Venom to the big screen, in which Eddie Brock’s origins, as well as that of the alien symbiote, have nothing to do with Peter Parker or his costumed alter ego. First, the name of “Venom”, in the comic form, is a reference to the bite of a spider; divorced from the Spider-Man origin, it makes absolutely no sense. Second, the look of Venom in comics represents a distorted, grotesque image of Spider-Man; now he looks like a muscle-bound black and shape-shifting version of Spider-Man for no discernible reason.
Though we see symbiotes very early in the film, it takes about half of the film for one of them to make its way to Eddie Brock in order to, finally, see Venom in all his muscular, fanged, long-tongued, and oozing glory. Director Ruben Fleischer, who proved he could balance comedy and horror right with his debut feature, Zombieland. The film moves fast, too fast for a moment of reflection on the truly horrifying aspects, which, after pulling lots of punches to make the film a PG-13 entry, leaves all of the potential for being truly unnerved by beheadings and disembowelings, which are almost entirely off the screen, glossed over by the next shiny object.
It plays out like an issue of the Ultimates line of Marvel Comics, where non-canon versions, with different origins and characterizations, of well-known superheroes get to shine without the need to worry about current continuity. The screenplay is credited to Jeff Pinkner (co-writer of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and producer of TV’s “Alias” and “Fringe” fame), Scott Rosenberg (who did rewrites with Pinkner on Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and Kelly Marcel, who adapted the first of the Fifty Shades of Grey films to the screen. The film plays for a jocular tone, despite its horrific leanings in the story-line, to the point where the Brock-Venom entity plays more as a cute buddy-movie mash-up than anything truly scary. All of the actors play every astonishingly novel concept, whether encountering alien life or in seeing people impaled by Venom’s tentacle-like out-shoots, without much trace of the kind of terror, amazement or mind-blowing awe that should surely completely upend the town of San Francisco, or the world as a whole, once monstrosities spill out to the bustling streets.
I like the lead actors of the film, but I strongly dislike the roles they portray. Tom Hardy plays a quippy, perpetual loser that comes across like a beefier version of a typical Charlie Day character. The growling voice of Venom, also voiced by Hardy, seems to leave more of a lasting impression, even though Hardy gives the part its all, scant though it may be. Michelle Williams promises to bolster the acting department, yet gets a part that nearly any actress with a tenth of her talent could have played just as well, and seems more like a second-tier Pepper Potts than anything that gives her much spark on her own to distinguish her. Riz Ahmed, though a charismatic presence, isn’t particularly engaging or weight as the heavy of the film.
Despite the rather uninspired and sometimes nonsensical story-line, Venom retains a low-grade watchability throughout, thanks in part to Hardy’s committed, manic performance, especially once he has another entity inside him that is trying to control the action. However, once the third act hits and we’re left with CGI creations battling CGI creations, vaguely akin to a Transofmers flick in execution, in ways in which it is difficult to discern what’s happening anymore, Fleischer’s film finally sinks into the morass of mediocrity that the film had been in a battle with succumbing to all along.
All things considered, it’s not without some entertainment value, especially in the tug-of-war between Brock and the homicidal alien who speaks to his worst instincts from within, but it is a very silly and often aesthetically and tonally repugnant two hours to spend at the movies with little to show for it overall. Much like the alien symbiotes within the film, I took Venom in, but it didn’t take hold, flailing desperately for something to latch onto, leaving it a mess when it can’t find any solid attachment. I guess this is one mischievous parasitic endeavor that is meant for another host.
— There is a mid-credits scene setting up a future entry and a post-credits preview for another Spider-Man related feature to come.
Qwipster’s rating: D+
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze, Peggy Lu, Malcolm C. Murray
Small role: Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson, Stan Lee, Nick Thune, Woody Harrelson
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel