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Venom (2018) starring Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams

A symbiotic alien

A spacecraft belonging to a San Fransisco-based bioengineering corporation called Life Foundation crash-lands in Malaysia. When the sole surviving astronaut is carried away in an ambulance, a mysterious symbiotic life form leaves his body and enters that of the vehicle’s driver.

After this brief opening sequence, the story jumps across to San Francisco itself, where Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) lives with his girlfriend Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). He ekes out a living as a hotshot investigative reporter - and his latest assignment is to interview Life Foundation’s CEO, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). While Brock has concerns about the legality of his operations, his boss warns him not to probe the man too deeply. However, the night before the interview, he browses through his girlfriend’s email and finds a document which pretty much confirms his suspicions. On the day, he confronts Drake about his wrongdoings, resulting in being ejected from the company premises, followed swiftly by both himself and Anne losing their jobs. To make matters worse, she decides to dump him for what she sees as his betrayal of her trust.

Meanwhile, back at the Life Foundation’s secret lab, Drake is overseeing a series of experiments involving the amorphous black symbiotic creature. He attempts to get it to meld with a series of homeless people. Unfortunately, in most cases, it seems to prove fatal for the human hosts. His assistant, Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who is disgusted by her superior’s lack of ethics, decides to track Brock down to help expose him. While Brock is initially reluctant to get involved, he eventually changes his mind and sneaks into the lab with her help. Inside, he is shocked to find a homeless woman whom he met earlier (played by Melora Walters) and breaks her out of her glass holding cell by smashing through the door. However, he finds out too late that she has been melded with the symbiotic being - which then proceeds to jump over into his body. When he frantically attempts to escape the lab, he finds that he is able to overcome the building’s security forces with incredible ease thanks to the assistance the creature with which he is now melded.

Having returned home, however, he discovers that his troubles have only begun. Not only is he being pursued by Drake’s henchmen, who have been tasked with getting the creature back, but he also has to deal with his companion’s violent, flesh-hungry urges.

Watch a trailer:

Does Venom live down to weak expectations?

Things haven’t been looking good for this non-MCU Marvel adaptation. For one thing, it was originally intended to be geared towards an R rating in the U.S. but, in the end, Sony’s executives decided to aim for a PG-13, thus making it easier for a younger adolescent demographic to see it. For another, star Tom Hardy has claimed that his favourite 40 minutes of the film were cut for the release - quite a substantial amount of footage. Advance reviews haven’t been kind either; at the time of writing, it sits with an aggregate score of 31% on Rotten Tomatoes and 35% on Metacritic. As such, I went in with duly lowered expectations.

In actual fact… it’s not that bad. While there’s plenty wrong with Venom, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. The main problems here are the jumpy narrative and inconsistent tone. It’s easy to see the aggressive pruning that the film underwent in the editing room because there are moments in the narrative which are simply skipped over. A classic example is the establishment of the alien parasite leaping between hosts in Malaysia early on in the film. After it jumps between three different people and the third of them reaches an airport to (it is implied) fly out of the country, this particular narrative thread just disappears into thin air. While we can speculate on what happened afterwards based on events which occur later in the film, the dots are never clearly connected up.

Eddie Brock’s first encounter with the Venom parasite is also handled in a bewildering manner. When he escapes from the lab with its help, he just seems to blithely accept what is happening. As soon as he gets home, however, he spends most of the runtime in conflict with it. Parts of the film (especially the entire first half) are dark, deadly serious and almost horror movie-like. However, as soon as the whole conflict dynamic emerges between Brock and Venom, the tone veers into outright comedy as we see the latter’s face emerge to scare off a rocker neighbour who keeps playing his music too loud, or when Brock stumbles around embarrassingly in a fancy restaurant, gorging on all of the food around him in a desperate attempt to satiate the creature now attempting to control him. The film’s compromised hard edge is noticeable; although Venom is seen biting human heads off, it is depicted in an entirely blood-free fashion.

While the disjointedness and indecisive style are the most prominent flaws, they aren’t the only ones. The action sequences suffer from hyperactive-edit-itis, an action movie disease which I thought was well on its way to being cured after the fluid staging seen in the likes of John Wick and the Tom Hardy-starring Mad Max: Fury Road. While Venom isn’t quite as bad as the recent The Predator in this regard, it still feels like part of a nascent backsliding movement against all that’s good in thrilling setpieces. Riz Ahmed also makes for a bland and menace-free villain. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a decent actor, but playing outright bad guys just isn’t his forte.

Tom Hardy in Venom

Despite all of this, however, Tom Hardy seems to be having a lot of fun playing off against himself, in a dual role as Brock and (under heavy audio distortion) Venom’s voice - and the fun generally rubs off on the viewer, too. While the expository first half is on the dull side, the more action and humour-filled second half is never less than a lively ride. Yes, the sudden tonal shifts are bewildering and yes, the finale overdoses on the CGI, but there’s enough rough diamond charm to make it easy to enjoy.

All in all, one gets the feeling that Venom could have been great had the filmmakers and studio not fumbled the ball on a few occasions. It’s currently on track for a strong box office take, potentially leaving things open for a sequel which, one would hope, will take the criticisms on board. As it is, you’ll still have a fairly good time… as long as you keep your expectations in check.

Runtime: 112 mins

Dir: Ruben Fleischer

Script: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel, based on a Marvel Comics character created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie

Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters

Rating: ☆☆☆

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