Alright, Venom is bad. Not like interestingly bad, or creatively bad, there’s honestly very little of merit to be found in this feature. What makes it redeemable is that it is the exact sort of bad that makes it really fun to watch.
It may be a counterintuitive way to approach watching this film, given that the main characters are genetic scientists, investigative reporters, lawyers and doctors — but it’s just best to assume starting out that all the characters are complete idiots who will always do the dumbest thing in any given situation. Now I’m not sure this was entirely intentional, but given its innate and oppressive desire to be edgy this sorta nihilistic view on humanity and the people we entrust with our protection kinda gels.
Most notably so in Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of the sort of Silicon Valley tech billionaire villain. I mean, the script was probably written beforehand but the epic Elon Musk breakdown over the past six months must have been a present discussion in the editing suite. Here we have a guy who made his fortune and so has taken it upon himself to improve humanity by colonising space. The monologues he delivers — which were probably intended to read as maniacal diatribes — instead make absolutely no sense. You sense this guy, were he not engaged in throwing the homeless into the jaws of the alien menace he had captured, would be five minutes away from taking fat bong rips on the Joe Rogan show.
Even his excuse for the clearly unethical and lethal research is straight from the mouth of the dumbest sort of tech bro. ‘Animal testing is small science, we gotta move on to doing the big science, dude. Cos we’re trying to find big answers.’ It doesn’t come as a surprise that when Tom Hardy breaks into the building at night, again making a variety of moronic decisions as he does so, the entire office is perplexed at who could have done this. Like none of them thought to check the access codes that were used? Were all the cameras in the lobby and elevator turned off? The man just saunters in through the front entrance. Oh, but who could it have been?
I’m gonna hold off on describing all the stupid shit here, because this review would easily balloon into maybe 4000 words and be very tedious to read. Suffice to say that this break in, when he finally is infected with the alien symbiote and starts to develop the classic Venom powers, takes place about halfway through the feature. It’s also here that the film starts to be in any way worthwhile. Seriously, just about everything up to this point is a chore to get through.
It leads to the thing having the texture of some trashy eighties B-movie horror joint. Think Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, or Steve Miner House, where they have the budget and impetus for a half hour of wild crazy fun and enough actors and sets for an hour of padding to surround it.
Hardy starts the film as a cartoon of a motorcycle riding, truth-to-power speaking, investigative reporter. His editor is painted as the police commissioner from every cop movie ever, torn between a disdain for his renegade methods and a respect for the results he gets. For some reason the editor gives him the Riz Ahmed interview, and directs him not to ask any tough or compromising questions. Clearly the editor is as much of a doofus as anyone else, he must have seen this going bad.
In his search for a story Hardy makes the stellar decision to hack into his fiancé’s computer (she works as a lawyer defending the company) to gain access to confidential information with which to confront the shifty CEO. Obviously it all goes to shit. The interview is shut down as soon as it starts to go off the rails. The editor asks Hardy to hand in his gun and badge (or press pass, same difference), and his girlfriend is fired for obviously being the source of the leaked information. She breaks up with him.
Cut to six months later, and we are treated to a good half hour of this man moping and sad waiting for him to stumble on the conspiracy as he eventually must. It’s dramatically inert to say the least. We know who the bad guys are and what they’re doing. His ex, played my Michelle Williams who honestly deserves so much better, is with a guy who seems so much better than him, and he is mostly content to bum around his shitty apartment where he fails to even cook tater-tots right. He’s basically the left-wing irony podcaster equivalent of the large adult son.
This thankfully changes after he is infected. When I talked about the flick’s edgy aesthetic earlier I don’t think I made clear enough quite how thoroughly it is ingrained. It is all edge, between the dingy apartments, fluorescent convenience stores, high tech labs, and a vision of San Francisco that is either sun-bleached or dead of night noir, it all feels very dollar store Fincher. But Fincher, at least on his good days, has an undeniable control of tone that just ain’t present here.
Like, I can tell at times when the film is going for comedy. Especially when the jokes are made through the edit, which actually displays a keen sense of comic timing. At other points though, I’ll be laughing with no idea if that was the intended result. A large part of that is in Tom Hardy’s performance which is so unbelievably extra it acts in opposition not only to the characters around him, but also the very structure of the film as a whole.
I’m sure he is doing an honest and truthful performance of a man infested with an alien entity as possible. It’s just that his interpretation is about two steps back from Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. He becomes in front of our eyes an almost literal cartoon the affected voice and mannerisms that only irritate earlier on compounding to sincere and full on ridiculousness. A goofy bewildered expression plastered upon his face as he stutters and murmurs at the growly voice in his head that only he can hear.
Surprising that the film which has marketed itself as the grimdark alternative to them Marvel movies stars a hero more outright laughable than any they have devised. Even his supposed moments of triumph are undercut as the story again finds another way to humiliate him. At one point, in a building lobby (the setting of one of the film’s mercifully few incomprehensible action scenes) Venom has dispatched a squadron of armed police and prepares to eat the final one. His ex just wanders into the scene and sees as the hulking beast drops the man and returns to his human form. She just looks on and shouts the word ‘Hospital!’ and everyone laughs at how small and impotent he now seems. Was that supposed to be funny? No idea.
Most disappointing I guess is how underdeveloped the central relationship is. The relationship between Hardy’s character and the evil inclined alter-ego inhabiting his body is rarely explored. There’s like two scenes where they actually have some sorta discourse, the rest of the time it seems that Venom’s primary role is to add yet more jokes. They’re a consistent wisecracker, and I’m certain there’s a few of their gags that were just added in the editing suite. Something is wrong when the most interesting piece of information about them is revealed towards the final moments by another character entirely.
The obvious subtext is kinda hinted at a little. Mostly through jokes that expose Hardy’s character’s toxic masculinity and quiet homophobia. The relationship between the pair is very obviously a queer romantic one, and what with Venom being the kinkiest comic book character ever designed — it probably ain’t vanilla. Yet this gets absolutely no examination, low budget queer cinema is full of stories about adults realising that they’re not as straight as they thought navigating their way around a new and uncomfortable identity. Why don’t we get that in a supposedly adult film about someone finding emancipation and pleasure in something many would consider perverse?
Sure, if you’ve been looking at other reviews you’ve probably found out that the two share a kiss at one point. Unfortunately, they really do try their level best to make it as normative as possible. You really can feel them straining to be provocative, but just not too much.
That’s the whole film basically. It feels as divided as its lead, which judging by the whisperings that are surfacing in the trades were a result of a particularly tortured production process. Whatever the reason, this stuff still had to be shot in order to make it onscreen and there’s no excusing the terrible action and their 3am diner-table napkin-draft of a shooting script. Even if everything that people gave Tom shit for in the trailers turned out to be the absolute right choice.
He’s a pro.
Venom is currenty screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Sony