VENOM

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Stars: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Woody Harrelson, Peggy Lu.

Tom Hardy, Peggy Lu, and Sam Medina in Venom (2018)Yet another superhero movie, this one featuring a second-tier character from the Marvel stable. Or should that be a super-anti-hero, because Venom is not your usual superhero?

We first met Venom in the Sam Raimi-helmed Spiderman 3, when he was played by Topher Grace. And despite its origins with Spiderman, Venom clearly sits outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film itself has been produced by Sony studios rather than Marvel Studios itself, and that is probably the major reason why this is such a mess. Marvel Studios are far more protective of their franchise characters and more respectful of the comic book origins.

Venom purports to give us an origins story for the character and fill in the backstory. However, it draws from the usual template for many other superheroes from the Marvel stable – an ordinary person is infected by an incident in a laboratory, transformed and given super powers, then he has to learn how to harness his powers and use them for good and defeat evil forces that threaten his world.

Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy, from Mad Max: Fury Road, etc) is a crusading journalist in San Francisco. Then in the same day he loses both his job and his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams, from Brokeback Mountain, etc) a high-powered lawyer, after he uses information from her confidential legal files when interviewing billionaire scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, from Nightcrawler, etc). The head of the Life Foundation, Drake is suspected of using homeless people as test subjects in secret experiments in his laboratories. A scientist with some sort of God complex, Drake is experimenting with a parasitic alien symbiote, trying to meld the slimy alien lifeform with humans.

One of Drake’s spaceships bringing back to earth samples of an alien life form collected from a comet crashed in the jungles of Malaysia in fiery fashion. All of the symbiote samples bar one was recovered. It has morphed into the body of one of the rescuers, and then transforms itself continually from one human host to another as it makes its way to San Francisco and the other samples. With its ability to move from one human to another this body snatching alien lifeform is similar to the nasty alien creature at the heart of Jack Sholder’s superb 1987 thriller The Hidden, in which innocent people were possessed and turned into vicious killers.

Brock sneaks into Drake’s laboratories one night looking for the evidence to support his theory. But he is attacked by one of the human guinea pigs and infected by the alien creature. Brock finds himself possessed by the alien presence that has a myriad of powers and a heightened sense of self preservation. Eddie finds himself pursued by Drake’s own private squad of mercenary killers. There is a car chase through the streets of San Francisco that makes good use of the city’s hilly streets. The film ends with a climactic and destructive showdown between two CGI created characters that overloads on some less than spectacular special effects and sloppy editing that renders them almost incomprehensible.

Hardy has an intense screen presence that has often been well exploited in films like The Dark Knight Rises and Bronson, and he delivers a manic and unhinged performance here as he wrestles internally with the alien within and tries to restrain it from wreaking too much havoc. There is a great scene set in Brock’s apartment when he discovers the extent of his powers for the first time while fighting off some of Drake’s henchmen. The intensity though is tempered with some bleak touches of unexpected humour. Hardy apparently underwent extensive makeup sessions for the transformation his character undergoes. The makeup team have captured the look of the creature though with its inky black skin, its sharp teeth and long, slimy tongue, its long black tendrils and gooey substances. Venom looks pretty much like the comic book artists imagined him.

Hardy is the best thing about Venom, and brings some much needed energy to the material as he carries on frenetic conversations with the parasitic alien inhabiting his body. Both Williams and Jenny Slate are lumbered with fairly thankless roles here, while the usual superb Ahmed is hampered by the limitations of his cliched, stock standard evil villain.

So it’s a pity that the film has been let down though by a messy, cliched and lacklustre script from a team of writers that includes Jeff Pinkner (The Dark Tower, etc), Scott Rosenberg (Con Air, the recent remake of Jumanji, etc), Will Beall (Gangster Squad, etc) and Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades Of Grey, etc). They seems to lack the inherent understanding of the character and the source material itself. The script is riddled with inconsistencies and an uneven tone that veers between sci-fi horror, superhero action and black humour.

With its ability to rip humans apart with its razor-sharp teeth, the eponymous Venom is a fairly violent creature, but director Ruben Fleischer (who gave us the superb Zombieland, etc) has neutered him and toned down the gore for a more family friendly rating from the censors. Thus, Venom is tonally uneven and lacks the necessary hard edge it needed; the film should have been more like Deadpool and its sequel, and the filmmakers should have embraced the violence and subversive, politically incorrect sense of humour. It is also unevenly paced, visually bland and dull.

Venom is a special effects driven film, but unfortunately many of the effects are second rate and less than impressive. There is a post credits sting that hints at the direction the sequel will take with the villainous Carnage played by a manic Woody Harrelson.

Venom has been stuck in production hell for many years and has undergone numerous changes in that time. However, with this messy, disappointing film, superhero fatigue has well and truly set in for the time being.

★★☆

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