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VENOM (2018) review

October 5, 2018

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written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel (screenplay, from a story by Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg)
produced by: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach and Amy Pascal
directed by: Ruben Fleischer
rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language)
runtime: 112 min.
U.S. release date: October 5, 2018

 

With “Venom”, Sony/Columbia Pictures is trying to see if they can make a movie revolving around a Spider-Man villain without Spider-Man work, while they currently share the heroic webslinger with Disney (even though he’s currently dust). They can’t. The fact that this is the second attempt to bring the wily carnivorous Marvel Comics super villain to the big-screen is proof that studio heads will keep throwing black goo against the wall and hoping it sticks. It doesn’t. I kind of got that impression by the unimpressive trailers, but I had to add context to my curiosity. While there are zany and weird moments that work on a bizarre level, director Ruben Fleischer (who brought us “Zombieland” and “Gangster Squad”) and his screenwriters can’t commit to a consistent tone and instead wind up checking off boxes of a regurgitated formulaic story. 

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a video journalist in San Francisco known for his hard-nosed exposes which shine a light on various wrongdoings, often highlighting corruption of authorities or the wealthy and identifying their helpless human casualties. He lives with his fiancé, Anne Weyling (Michelle Williams), who is working on a case involving the Life Foundation, a local bioengineering corporation that insists their groundbreaking work will make the world a better place. Indeed, the company’s founder and inventor, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), believes the human race is almost extinct and he is taking mysterious measures to reverse that.

 

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Looking for a big break, Brock is assigned  an interview with Drake by his boss (an uncredited Ron Cephas Jones) and after digging up some dirt and attaining some confidential material that Anne had, he is tossed out of his interview after he asks Drake about alleged human fatalities linked to the experiments he oversees. This action gets Anne fired, who proceeds to break off her engagement to Eddie since her trust in him is broken, ending their relationship.

At this point in the movie, it’s obvious that everything we’ve seen is set-up, since the titular character hasn’t shown up yet and all we’re really getting is character introductions.

Well, not entirely, since the movie opens with a Life Foundation space vessel crash-landing in Malaysia, after one of the symbiotic lifeforms retrieved from an asteroid escapes upon entry to Earth. (For those well-versed in the history of the character from the comics, you may notice that one of the pilot’s of the vessel, with the last name of Jameson, is still alive, but is acting strangely). The goal of Life Foundation is to bring these alien lifeforms back to the lab and study them. There is a subplot developed out of this opening which leads to the development of the movie’s antagonist. Much of that subplot resembles a familiar “Body Snatchers” storyline (it also brought to mind, the cult classic, “The Hidden”, a sci-fi horror flick from 1987),  wherein this aggressive alien hitches a ride to the West Coast using human hosts, with plans to reunite with its other symbiotic pals.

After the proverbial and convenient “six months later”, we catch up with Eddie, who’s love life is shot and is in dire need of a job. He’s not picky either, as he’s seen circling a newspaper listing for a dishwasher. It’s at this point that I realized just how analog Eddie is, since it’s kind of odd to see someone flipping through a newspaper nowadays. We already saw him interviewing Drake using a pad of paper and a pen, and his apartment appears to be very low-tech. Clearly, they’re going for an ‘Average Joe’ kind of guy for All of this reminding me of the character Logan Marshall-Green played in this past summer’s sci-fi thriller, “Upgrade”. Coincidentally, Hardy and Marshall-Green are often mistaken for each other. Remember when you thought you saw Hardy in “Prometheus”? Nope, that was Marshall-Green.

 

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Thing change for Eddie, possibly permanently, when Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a Life Foundation scientist approaches Eddie, stating he was on to something when he mentioned human fatalities. In fact, they’re experimenting on the local homeless under the age-old justification that “they won’t be missed” (a plot point seen in other movies, Michael Apted’s 1996 crime thriller “Extreme Measures” comes to mind), something that  Eddie finds in person once Dr. Dora gives him late-night access to the lab. This is where Eddie will get ‘infected’ by one of the symbiotes (often pronounced SIM-BYE-OAT in this movie and referred to as a “parasite” – a running gag that annoys Venom) – who will later introduce itself as Venom – and you may want to take note that the movie is clocking in at almost an hour at this point.

There’s been no sign of the titular creature yet and for some that may be a real test of patience. It was for me, since everything I was seeing up till Venom finds its new home was quite formulaic and fairly unoriginal. It’s not a good viewing experience when you’re left to watch potentially good actors (Oscar nominees even!) like Hardy, Williams, Ahmed and Slate, just go through the stereotypical motions, working with lines of dialogue that are utterly and mostly unintentionally laughable.

Once Venom uses the unsuspecting and legit freaked-out Eddie, things get interesting and by interesting, I mean cooky and silly and let me tell you that’s a good thing and probably the best part of the movie. In fact, if you’re here solely for Hardy and are curious as to whether or not he’ll get near-bugnuts level, you’ll probably be pleased. I say ‘probably’ just because there are times even pre-Venom, when Hardy is just acting flat-out weird. Yes, we get the expected verbal mumblings and guttural utterances that the actor is known for, but apart from that I really don’t know what he’s going for with his portrayal of Brock. Hardy’s accent has a hint of east coast (which is fine, since the character eludes to leaving behind some drama in New York, something that occurred in the comics) that the actor can’t seem to stick with and throughout the entire movie it looks like he’s walking around with a load in his never-been-washed pants to match his raggedy hoodie. I get that the script paints Brock as a kind of thoughtless and opportunistic loser, but it would’ve been nice if it there was even a hint that he could function on his own when the cameras aren’t rolling.

 

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Still, the scenes where Eddie begins to realize that something has changed him are great, especially when he starts to hear Venom’s voice (voiced by a raspy Hardy, sounding like an Ominous Cookie Monster) in his head. Essentially, what we’re seeing is a powerful creature sharing Eddie’s body, one that can enhance it with super-strength, a healing factor and regeneration, as well as stamina, durability and insatiable hunger to chomp people’s heads off (in the comics it’s a desire to eat brains, yet here he develops a fondness for tater tots and chocolate), which is incredibly overwhelming for Eddie and also quite cool and amusing to watch play out. At times, it’s quite comical how Eddie and Venom argue internally with each other, without anyone truly knowing what’s going on with Eddie. This comedy, combined with Eddie’s own fear and desperation is fun to watch, like when he tracks down Anne and her new doctor boyfriend (Reid Scott) at a seafood restaurant and Venom can’t help but to use Eddie to search for food that is still alive and there happens to be a tank filled with submerged lobsters nearby. These are great physical moments for Hardy and he goes at them full-tilt.

Sadly, just about everything that comes after these scenes are reminiscent of just about every superhero origin story we’ve seen before. The thing is, Venom shouldn’t be a hero. I know the marketing is making him out to be an anti-hero, which is derived from the comics, but what is needed in this movie, is a more gradual struggle and realization from Eddie that he must figure out how best to contend and possibly live with this alien symbiote.  We don’t get that here, since everything movies too fast. For example, during an inevitable car chase, when armed goons employed by Drake to capture and return his product, Eddie is freaked out and in shock in one moment (when Venom takes over his body to use defensive and offensive maneuvers to protect Eddie) and in the next second, he can be seen laughing in mid-action, admiring Venom’s handiwork. Such a transition happens too fast and negates the horrific ramifications of an alien taking over your body. I get it, the writers want symbiosis ASAP, but at the cost of believability (as much as anything in this movie can be believable, including Williams’ awful wig) it all becomes something of a letdown.

As much as I got a kick out of seeing Venom as Eddie’s maniacal Id, one who makes a point to share his weaknesses of fire and high sound frequencies, the fun and entertainment of that middle act dissolves into a predictable third act finale. This is where things really feel rushed and messy and also quite ludicrous with Anne turning into a Gwen Stacy look-alike (she turns into something else too, which was actually pretty cool, but that’s discarded rather quickly). Towards the very end of the movie, it appears that Eddie has achieved, or at least managed, full symbiosis, using Venom to act as a local crusader against crime while attempting to let out some ground rules for a unified stability.

I don’t know if it’ll work between Venom and Eddie, just like I don’t know how the inevitable planned sequel (stick around for a mid-end credit sequence involving Woody Harrelson as one Cletus Kasady) and part of me wants a series of road trip shorts where the pair are teaching each other a thing or two while sharing a body. The possibilities are endless, but Sony/Columbia are more concerned with serving up something familiar to get butts in seats upon opening weekend.

I also don’t know how die-hard fans of Venom will feel about this iteration of the character. Fans can be fickle, especially comic book fans. I usually understand why, but I also get why changes are made from page to screen and how they’re typically changes that make sense. What doesn’t work here has nothing to do with a misrepresentation of the character created in the late 80s by writer David Micheline and artist Todd McFarlane (the storyline here is heavily influenced by two early 90s mini-series, Venom: Lethal Protector and the five-issue Planet of the Symbiotes storyline which ran through the four Spider-Man books Marvel was publishing at the time, itself a follow-up from the four-issue limited series Venom: Separation Anxiety), but I would also say artist Erik Larsen is also heavily responsible for the Venom’s recognizable. 

There’s an unintentionally funny line, “Sorry about your Venom”, that Williams’ Anne delivers to a forlorned Eddie after he’s presumably separated from Venom. It elicited an audible chuckle from the audience around me, probably because it serves as an appropriate apology to viewers. The thing is, this will inevitably be somebody’s first Venom and going in cold, with zero knowledge of the source material, they’ll probably like this Venom.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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