Twisted, hugely problematic spin-off with salvation in its laughs.
Life, the 2017 space-horror flick, was a surprising watch. It borrowed a chunk of plotting from other similar features, namely Alien, but crafted enough suspense and a slimy, unnerving extraterrestrial to give itself strong footing. The weird thing is the creature in Life is unquestionably alike to that of the symbiotes seen in Ruben Fleischer’s Venom. Oh, and both were released by Sony. Now there’s no real proof out there that the two films are linked, but it’s something that, as you watch the first 20 minutes of Venom, starts to feel like a missed opportunity in terms of linking the two together. There’s also the fact that Life is leaps and bounds ahead of the latter release, a fundamentally terrible movie in almost every regard, that rather remarkably still manages to be really, really entertaining.
Venom is a Marvel character, yes, but he now exists purely within the twilight realms of Sony’s apparent new cinematic universe, as he was not handed over in the Sony/Marvel agreement years ago. The character is famed, generally, for his link to the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, but this iteration takes the character in a different direction.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative reporter, a white night who soldiers on to expose crooks and scoundrels, looking out for the everyman, every day, no matter what the cost. He’s flaky, irresponsible and self-absorbed, but his passion is irrefutable. His lawyer girlfriend, Michelle Williams, is more of a stickler for the rules, and can get frustrated with her man’s ‘need’ for justice’.
Williams has a fierce filmography, with stunning performances in heart-wrenching dramas such as Manchester By The Sea and Blue Valentine, but her work here screams a lack of wanting to be involved, a money grab you could say. She shows emotion but none of it feels real, assured, genuine. A glaring lack of chemistry between her and the leading man removes any sort of fire from their interactions, with about as much spark as a broken stove. Nor is her arc properly developed, written by the team of writers (four writers spells meandering nonsense from the beginning) that have no notion of nuance or steady plotting particularly when it comes to onscreen relationships.
Brock is tasked with interviewing so-called visionary, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the founder of the Life Foundation (*nudge nudge*) who comes under some heat after his space-exploration trip has a destructive end. Brock is convinced there’s some shady goings-on in Drake’s company, and as the mystery escalates, he discovers that Drake is testing alien symbiotes on poor people. Naturally, he tries to investigate further, but after sneaking into the lab, a frightening encounter leaves him paired with one of the lifeforms, giving birth to a new violent alter-ego, Venom.
And so begins the carnage (sorry) across the city as Brock tries to come to grips with his new presence, while the nefarious villain of the piece tries to track him down to bring back his ‘specimen’. Drake is the kind of faux-philosophy driven villain that evokes more eye-rolls than respect, spouting nonsensical rubbish about the failure of human beings’ design, and yada yada yada. Drake is spoken about like he’s someone who should not be messed with, but Ahmed lends him almost no authority in his performance, nor much charisma, leaving an empty placeholder villain that is simply there to advance the story but not help benefit it.
There’s a comment theme in the fallout of Venom‘s release that it feels around 15 years old. People who are saying that are absolutely correct. From the abysmal Eminem single that accompanies the film (I like the rapper but it is dross), to the pre-Incredible Hulk effects that verge from amateur YouTube jump scare videos of old (a scene in which Brock asks his neighbour to turn his music down exhibits this perfectly), to the cinematic equivalent of a giant, shiny slug with teeth and a tongue that feels like it’s constantly bidding to prove us of its efficiency at cunnilingus.
Fleischer’s film taps into the dated storytelling tropes from superhero movies made before the delicacy and balance of the modern comic book boom, such as action scenes that literally make absolutely no logistical sense, such as a sequence in which Brock runs from cops who seemingly keep up with him despite his superhuman speed and their relatively relaxed speed walk. The film constantly throws these things at us that are supposed to elevate the excitement of a set-piece, such as a sequence with buggies that appear out of nowhere, but the camera cuts to them repeatedly as if to say, “Hey, look at our cool buggies, our buggies are awesome”. Drake also implements the use of drones to keep track of Brock’s movements, a thoroughly cheap bit of narrative gimmickry that establishes early on that there’s always a chance enemies will know where our ‘hero’ is.
As for Hardy, I’d like some of what he’s on. It’s one of the stranger performances of the year, pretty much straight from the get-go he seems like a mild-to-severe lunatic with irrational mannerisms. God knows how he’s gotten so far in the journalism industry with his jump-the-gun work ethic. It really does feel like he’s performing in a different movie altogether, with the rest of the cast seeming fairly down and gloomy about everything, whereas Hardy is animated, boisterous, I’d say unhinged but that generally has positive connotations.
Even the anticipated action sequences, where you’ll see people crushed in cars, flung off roofs, heads being bitten off, the works really, are fairly bogus, with some ham-fisted, chaotic editing, the use of the bloody Wilhelm scream, poor wire work and poorly-lit environments. Some scenes are nicely framed, coming from the eyes of Matthew Libatique (whose other film, A Star Is Born, is also in theatres). But there’s just that ever-present feeling of over-abundant CGI-guff that hopes we won’t notice all of these other significant problems.
Yet, despite the flaws which should almost put a bullet through the film’s head, Venom is truly entertaining. Like, smile all the way through and laugh your head off, entertaining. Brock and Venom’s dynamic strikes gold on more than one occasion, from a mesmerising restaurant ambush in which Hardy bathes in a lobster tank, to the symbiote taunting him for his cowardice in exiting a building (Jump!… pussy), to an actual f**king make-out scene involving the symbiote (oh yes, really), the utter, unadulterated and unfiltered lunacy that has slipped through initial development to the final product is astonishing. For fun value alone, this is a great time at the cinema, but from pretty much every filmmaking perspective, Venom is a bit of a catastrophe – silver linings, I suppose. Just make sure you stay right to the end; you’re in for a treat.
The crux of it is this; Venom‘s strength lies in its ridiculousness, because that’s all it really has going for it. One of the most bizarre mainstream comic-book releases in recent memory, but certainly not the worst.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm