Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writer: Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Producer: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal
Stars: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters
The conflict between a disgraced reporter and an egomaniacal scientist intensifies when human subjects begin bonding with vicious alien lifeforms.
“Venom” really isn’t as bad as you may have heard. Oh, it’s not good either. Story structure, character development, and technical execution all border on irresponsibly sloppy. But for one hell of a messily mediocre movie, “Venom” can still land more than a few raw punches of enjoyable nuttiness.
Plenty of comic book movies capture the awestruck wonder and excitement that comes with discovering newfound superpowers. “Venom” belongs to the minority of origin stories that showcase the panicked confusion and utter fear that would realistically come with such an extraordinarily horrifying metamorphosis.
You’re probably already familiar with the plot’s basic setup. A megalomaniacal CEO (is there any other kind in movies?) who runs a secretly evil science corporation (is there any other kind in movies?) comes into possession of several alien lifeforms. There’s a mostly irrelevant why behind the shifty CEO’s actions, but motivations barely matter anywhere in “Venom.”
Down on his luck after he loses his job and down in the dumps after he loses his fiancée, gold-hearted tough guy Eddie Brock (more than once referred to as a “loser” although his tattoos, leather jacket, motorcycle, and muscles send other signals) becomes a reluctant host to one of the symbiotes when it bonds with his body. Confronting a fresh identity crisis of a most unusual variety, Eddie now manages a villainous voice in his head demanding to feed an insatiable appetite for human meat.
Also in the mix is a new boyfriend for Eddie’s old girlfriend, a whistle-blowing Jiminy Cricket out to expose the bad guy, a baldheaded enforcer doing that bad guy’s dirty work, and other inconsequential mopes like ‘Homeless Woman Maria,’ whose actress actually receives her own title card. Mostly, every sub-story and side scene blares extraneous noise in a movie with no shortage of it. The meat and potatoes comes from Eddie’s ongoing struggle to retake control of his body while heading toward a showdown with another symbiote more powerful than his.
A sizable chunk of the film coasts on flippancy, though that attitude only accounts for a minor amount of frivolous fun. It’s no wonder “Venom” turns out to be a not-so-serious movie since the filmmakers treat the material similarly.
Much of the writing is lackadaisical. Acknowledging their occasional kiddiness, comic books will explain away a villain’s silly name by having someone say, “that monster will bring ‘Doomsday’ to Metropolis!” Hence, you get a guy nicknamed Doomsday.
In this movie, Eddie’s symbiote just says, “I’m Venom.” Another symbiote identifies itself as ‘Riot’ as though it’s totally normal on their planet to be named after violent words in the English language.
That’s not necessarily cynicism so much as an example of the level of effort at crafting entertainment we’re looking at here. “Venom” usually does only the minimum, but damn if the movie doesn’t get away with it more often than not.
Everyone else already has and can continue telling you how much awkward affability Tom Hardy brings to the lead role. They’re not wrong. Hardy makes the movie. It’s impossible to understate how his amalgam of possible contempt for the weird role, likely confusion over precisely how to tune his performance, and total embrace of all-out corniness singlehandedly saves “Venom” from sinking under the weight of its confusingly cut to ribbons content.
Riz Ahmed also deserves copious credit for his overlooked turn as the villain. With Ahmed’s slim frame and soft features, you might not immediately think he could be menacing. While he may not be physically imposing, Ahmed makes up for it with smarmy confidence, steely stares, and slick smiles to paint a robust portrait of an archetypical antagonist. He’s part Lex Luthor, part mad scientist, part Bond villain, part media mogul, part Elon Musk, and all terrific as a mildly reserved monger.
Elsewhere, “Venom” overloads on actors whose star status either isn’t needed or isn’t used. Even in low power mode like she is here, Michelle Williams still squeezes charismatic blood out of a thinly written stone. Meanwhile, Jenny Slate plays a humorless part that could have been filled by any average headshot with a modicum of Hollywood experience listed on the back.
While we have the red pen out, for adventuresome action egregiously heavy on CGI spectacle, digital effects are surprisingly under par for something sold as a studio tentpole. Actors and laborers must have enjoyed plenty of downtime while digital artists programmed much of the movie. Lengthy sequences feature animated symbiotes slugging it out against artificially generated backdrops of endless artifacts and motion blurs the human eye cannot keep up with. This demand to process overstuffed imagery becomes increasingly taxing when Venom and Riot continually morph into indiscernible piles of goo with countless whipping tendrils constantly contorting into various shapes at warp speed.
I’m on board with what’s popularly called “popcorn entertainment” when it’s all in the name of well-meaning fun. “Venom” certainly isn’t un-fun. It also isn’t campy enough, creative enough, intense enough, or polished enough to pass as a fully flavored candy and soda escapist diversion. Three out of five stars still suits the film as a fair evaluation of its general value. “Venom” is approximately 60% of a complete film, mindlessly entertaining at times through sudden rushes of over-adrenalized action, but emptily unfulfilling as a top to bottom experience in cursory comic book glibness.
Review Score: 60