“Eyes. Lungs. Pancreas. So many snacks, so little time.”
In 2018, there was a film in which a down-on-his-luck loser was imbued with some pretty awesome powers. All of a sudden he could do some amazing things, but he had a powerful entity in his head which he constantly had to talk to and argue with. The film toed the line between action, comedy, and body horror. That film is Leigh Whannell’s utterly excellent Upgrade. But sadly we’re here to talk about Venom.
I talk about Upgrade because the film’s are very similar. Same sort of protagonist, same idea and buddy vibe with the symbiote and STEM, both have the same comedic tone, and Upgrade even has “budget Tom Hardy” Logan Marshall-Green. But every one of those things is done far better than Venom, so even though Venom isn’t without one or two entertaining moments, I wanted to start the review by saying that if you enjoyed what it was going for, I recommend Upgrade. I’ll try not to make the comparison too much, but it’s tricky because they are so similar and one achieves so much more.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a reporter. He has a good job, a great fiancée (Michelle Williams), and seemingly everything is going great for him. That is until he confronts the dastardly Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) over some sketchy business practices during an interview and his life is ruined. No job, no fiancée, and back to being a loser. You’ll notice a few things about the film in the first half an hour. First, how dated it all feels. The script, aesthetic, and “humour” all feel like something from the early 2000’s – which makes sense considering the studio has had the film in development since 1997. The scene where bad-boy Eddie Brock is riding around San Francisco is straight out of the early-00s, with nu-metal swapped out for some monotonous rap. In the era of the MCU which (though not without its detractors) is famously known for taking risks, this just feels stale. The MCU continually makes films that are full of style and original ideas. Venom feels like a spin-off to the creatively-barren Amazing Spiderman films.
The other thing you’ll notice is how fast things move. The film opens with a space shuttle crash landing, then we see one of the injured pilots being put into an ambulance, then he wakes up and uses his new-found symbiotic tentacle powers to take out the paramedics. That’s not even five minutes in! There’s not even an attempt at building up to it. It just sort of…happens. Why waste the reveal on such an underwhelming scene? It’s like they were worried people would leave the cinema if they didn’t see a tentacle in the first two minutes. It means that when Eddie eventually gets Venom, it doesn’t mean a thing, we’ve seen it all with characters we don’t care about. Also the entire scene in Malaysia is entirely pointless. Riot, the (more) evil symbiote escapes in Malaysia and takes six months(!) to get to the airport. It spends six months as an old woman in Malaysia, when it’s made clear it can hop bodies whenever it wants. I can only assume this was a funding decision, as there is no reason the film needed to venture outside of the US. The rival symbiote could have escaped the lab and the film would have been literally the same.
Then Eddie gets Venom. And y’know what? These scenes are alright. The back-and-forth between the two is entertaining and Hardy’s manic performance combined with some crazy camera work really gels. There are a few moments of comedy (Eddie’s scream at seeing Venom in the mirror is hilarious) but I can’t help feeling like the film didn’t know what to be. Upgrade was confident in its tone, and the black comedy was handled well. Here, you’re constantly wondering if you’re laughing at the film or with it. And alas, even that doesn’t happen often enough. That aren’t enough laughs, genuine or otherwise to recommend it on that front. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good, it’s just dull.
In this middle section we also do get some admittedly cool action set pieces. Or one, at least. Venom vs the SWAT Team is well constructed, inventive, and displays all the cool things that I want in a Venom film. He feels dangerous and scary, they don’t show him too much, and it’s thrilling. But we also get a pretty wonky action scene on a motor bike which doesn’t entirely work. The CG isn’t good enough for what they want to do and it offers nothing that hasn’t been done before. And on the subject of action, the last act has a pretty poor last fight scene. It has a few cool images, as the symbiotes fight each other, occasionally pulling each man out, but it mainly feels like two grey/black splodges punching each other. It reminds me of the Transformers films, which can never be a good thing. In the action scenes they do try to have some gore too, but it’s entirely safe, by-the-numbers PG-13 fare. I didn’t think someone getting their head eaten could be boring but Venom continued to prove me wrong. There is some hints that the film wants to go down a more horror route, bones are popped out and then back into place, but like the comedy there isn’t enough of it. The (many) different tones of the film are like a plate of tiny foul-tasting appetisers, not one of them is enough to sustain or fill you, and at the end you’re left wondering why you even ate the things in the first place. And if this film is the starter, god help us when we get to the main course.
The supporting cast are entirely wasted. Michelle Williams gets a strange scene as She-Venom, which could have been interesting if they upped the horrific nature of it. But again it’s played safe and, like the film as a whole, feels like it was approved by a committee. Riz Ahmed is also wasted as Carlton Drake, though it’s entirely possible he was a completely different kind of wasted as he gives one hell of a hammy performance. It’s like things were done in one take, or the actors were just doing it for the paycheck. No one puts in any effort. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Williams and Ahmed are two of the best actors working today (same with Hardy) but in this they are boring at best, and ridiculous at worst. And I’m not as surprised by director Ruben Fleischer, why anyone chose him for this is beyond me. Sure Zombieland was fresh and original, but he lacks any sort of style or seemingly any real talent. There’s a scene early on between Eddie and Anne which must cut about twenty times as the two simply sit there talking. And the continuity is all over the place – one minute he’s got his hand up, next it’s down, next he’s holding a drink etc. They say you only notice these sort of things when they’re bad, and that’s 100% true here.
And is there any point mentioning the plot at this point? Characters we couldn’t care less about do asinine things that we can barely comprehend. We don’t know enough about anyone to care. The film rests entirely on the charm of its lead, and it’s wearing thin. I’m guessing a lot of people went to see this film because they like Tom Hardy, well I hope it was worth it. He spends the entire film talking in two silly accents and looking like a sweaty mess. The villain motivation is nonsensical too, both Drake and Riot. This makes the last fight even more boring. We don’t really know why Riot wants to go back, gather reinforcements, and come back to earth. To eat people? Really? That’s the plot we’re sticking with? And Venom does a sudden 180 because he likes Eddie? It’s ridiculous and not developed in the slightest. There is rumour that a lot of the film was cut out, which might explain it. But why would I want to watch 40 more minutes of this?
Overall, it’s not good. It has very little to recommend aside from one good action scene and some good interaction between Eddie and Venom. It is commendable that Tom Hardy voiced both, and as I’ve been comparing to Upgrade I have to admit that even they didn’t have that. But Upgrade had the tone, the comedy, the action, the performances, the plot, and the utterly outstanding direction. Basically, go watch Upgrade. Forget that you ever saw Venom. How this film made so much money is beyond me, and usually I can see the appeal (like The Greatest Showman missed with critics but hit home with fans – I could understand that). But this has nearly nothing going for it. It’s a product of a different era, when people didn’t need to try so hard. But the genre has moved on and Venom is left looking outdated, cringe-worthy, and boring. And nothing sums that up better than the godawful Eminem song in the credits.
(The less said about Woody ‘Carrot Top’ Harrelson, the better).
Reviewed by Jack