venom unrated

The experience of watching Venom is similar to the failed experimentation on human test subjects depicted in the new film’s long slog of a first hour. In the same way that those humans’ bodies so roundly reject the introduction of a gooey alien life form, Venom represents a battle between two opposing forces. There is the deliberately goofy and genuinely weird lead performance from Tom Hardy, and then there is the antiquated and lazy film surrounding Hardy. As much as he fights to be the dominant one, his performance is essentially rejected by Venom, in favor of storytelling choices that felt dated 15 years ago.

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco-based journalist with his own TV show that strives to be Vice-like in its supposedly ruthless investigative reporting. Eddie soon runs afoul of world-renowned scientist and inventor Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed); they clash during an interview that goes so badly for Eddie that he’s fired from his job and his fiancee Annie (Michelle Williams) promptly leaves him after she’s canned from her job. Eddie’s further exploration into what mysterious discoveries were made by Drake on a recent manned mission into space leads the intrepid reporter to eventually have some black alien goo known as a symbiote fuse into his body, turning him into the monstrous Venom.

The comic-book-averse will remember (or maybe you’d rather forget) that Venom appeared in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 back in 2007. There, Eddie Brock was played by Topher Grace as a warped and more cynical take on Peter Parker. Here, Eddie is portrayed as good-hearted, if something of a shifty oddball. Even before Eddie is partially taken over by Venom, Hardy makes him basically into a weirdo. When Eddie is first informed by one of Drake’s employees (a woefully underused Jenny Slate) that they’re harboring aliens, he immediately mimics E.T. as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Once Venom shows up – and boy, does it take way too long for the title character to show up – Hardy is even goofier. Brock doesn’t exactly have a lot of qualms about Venom leading him around San Francisco, beating up bad guys, and also eating bad guys’ heads. Because why not.

Tom Hardy is a lot of fun to watch here, partly because almost nothing else in this film is fun to watch. Though the ensemble around Hardy is mostly quite talented, they all appear to be acting in a different, much more boring superhero film. Watching Ahmed try and fail to breathe life into the character of Carlton Drake, who seems to be heavily inspired by a certain billionaire who recently got into trouble with the SEC, is especially vexing. No matter how many monologues Ahmed has about the fragility of the human body and the awe-inspiring power of alien symbiotes, it’s hard not to shake the sense that everything in Venom except Hardy was ported in from clunky early-2000s-era superhero films like Daredevil or Catwoman. So much of this film feels like it was cynically designed by a committee of executives who don’t understand why people like superhero movies; they just know people will pay to see them.

It does not help matters that Venom relies on a lot of CGI effects that are real, real rough to watch, both literally and figuratively. In a climactic battle, two alien symbiotes with human hosts go head-to-head in a nighttime battle; one specific shot with both symbiotes in focus feels like it’s meant to be the money shot, and maybe would be if the various CG elements were discernible or comprehensible. And an earlier car chase, right as Eddie is fully turning into Venom, is equally incoherent to watch. Director Ruben Fleischer, who made his name with the fluid and entertaining Zombieland nearly a decade ago, is unable to make heads or tails of the action set pieces here. Granted, there’s a lot more talking than action in Venom, but this car chase goes on for a while, as if it was meant to be what everyone would talk about on the way home, instead of something to forget.

Venom could have been worse, which is perhaps the worst kind of compu-sult. But it’s still true. The ads for this film pronounce that “the world has enough superheroes,” which is also true. The movie itself can’t quite position Venom as a true antihero; when your lead character says, “Let’s save the planet” in the third act, they’re acting pretty damn heroic. The problem with Venom is simple: only one person involved in this thing seems to understand what the movie should be. Tom Hardy and his squirrelly American accent are oddly delightful to watch here; it’s a sensation that’s amplified by every scene not featuring Hardy, precisely because of how leaden the rest of the film is.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.