Dir: Ruben Fleischer; Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed. Cert 15, 112 mins.
In its raw state, it looks like squirming, squid-stained black spaghetti. When it takes over a human, it gives its host superhuman powers. Welcome to the latest Marvel creation to get the big screen treatment. Venom is a mess of a movie, a baffling mishmash of sci-fi, horror and comedy elements and one which squanders most of the resources at its disposal. Prime among these are the two stars, Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, who are giving intriguing and appealing performances before the parasite gets into the system and sucks out all the juice from the drama.
Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco-based investigative reporter with his own TV show. He’s a rugged, unshaven loner. Williams is his lawyer girlfriend, Anne Weying. One of her clients is tech tycoon/scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Eddie despises Carlton. He suspects that the scientist’s empire is built on the back of nefarious experiments on dead babies or on the poor and vulnerable citizens he tricks into signing waivers they don’t understand so he and his staff can experiment on them.
Venom begins confusingly, with a space ship crashing down somewhere in the Malaysian forests and one of Carlton’s “organisms” going missing. The early part of the film, though, is the best. Hardy is engaging and likeable as the dogged journalist. Director Ruben Fleischer deals with the romance between Eddie and Anne in delicate fashion. As a human drama, the film has some real resonance. But then the creature gets in the way. The relationship between Eddie and the creepy-crawly which has taken possession of him becomes the main focus and Anne is shunted to the sidelines. Eddie experiences the beast within him not just as an entity which makes him voraciously hungry – and ready to eat his way through dustbins – but as a booming voice in his head. As they talk to one another, the film develops into an unlikely buddy movie.
Given the San Francisco settings, it is inevitable that there will be a Bullitt-style chase sooner or later. Sure enough, we eventually get to see Eddie (helped by the creature inside him) racing up and down the city’s labyrinthine roads on a motorbike as drones and gun-toting heavies in cars come after him. Very late on, we also get to see Alcatraz (but thankfully without any references to Al Capone).
In Deadpool, we know to expect the sarcasm and ironic humour. In Venom, also a 15 certificate, the lines are not so distinct. The film starts in relatively earnest fashion but becomes progressively more flippant. Given that the alien likes to bite the heads off humans and regards human eyes and lungs as tasty little snacks, the facetious humour can sometimes appear incongruous.
We learn that the alien parasite can switch bodies at will. Of course, it becomes far too fond of Eddie to do so. “You are far too good of a man to throw away so soon – plus I am beginning to like you,” it tells the journalist, advising its human host to regard it as “my ride”, as if Eddie is a flesh and blood version of an Uber taxi.
For his part, Eddie enjoys the power the “symbiote” gives him. With it inside him, he can soar up trees and skyscrapers, lick and slobber over objects a long, long way away and wreak havoc in fights. The creature isn’t just able to take over his physical functions; it is privy to his thoughts and feelings, too. By the end of the film, it is acting as his agony aunt, giving him relationship advice.
Even at the most grotesque moments, Hardy’s journalist retains his self-deprecating charm. However engaging his performance, though, it seems lightweight by comparison with his Bane in The Dark Knight Rises or his comic but hugely intimidating prisoner in Bronson or his role as the gangster in Peaky Blinders. Hardy is only at half cylinder here.
Venom has some attractive features. Ahmed as the smooth young villain is a welcome contrast to the eye-rolling Dr Frankenstein-like madmen and psychopaths generally pitted against superheroes. Williams brings emotion and passion to her role. She manages to convince us for a moment or two early on that we are watching a relationship-driven drama like Blue Valentine rather than a far-fetched superhero film.
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Some of the special effects are nifty enough as well. We see characters sliding down skyscrapers. The alien has a neat way of slithering into the air conditioning system. The final reel showdown is fiery and explosive. Even so, little is here that we haven’t encountered in countless other superhero films.
Sony is planning to make a franchise out of Venom. As long as the first film isn’t poison at the box office, sequels are therefore bound soon to follow. Audiences have an inexhaustible appetite for stories featuring all the Marvel characters. In other words, there is no antidote. We will just have to put up with Venom in the Hollywood system and hope that the future instalments have a bit more oomph than is found here.
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