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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Venom (October 2018)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Eddie Brock seems poised for greatness: he’s a successful, gritty Bay Area reporter prized by the news company for which he works, and is soon to marry his beautiful fiancée, lawyer Anne Weying. But then Eddie uses Anne to try and break a story about Life Foundation CEO Carlton Drake, and is instead himself broken in the process, fired from his job and dumped by Anne. The fun is only starting for Eddie: six months later, an extraterrestrial lifeform--part of Drake’s research--ends up bonding with Eddie’s body, turning him into an aggressive, head-ripping creature called Venom.

Not Enough Snacks, Too Much Time

At one point in this alternately plodding and frenzied superhero action blockbuster, Venom says, ”So many snacks, so little time!” Nice line, but I beg to differ, particularly with the second half of that sentiment. This movie is entirely too long, expending a trying amount of time in setting up pedestrian character arcs and hammy plot points, and ultimately rushing to an unsatisfying climax that consists largely of a befuddling CGI whirl set against impenetrably dark backgrounds. The movie is unabashedly silly, and seems to be aiming for a goofy, quirky tone. It only works once every seven or so scenes. Humor is subjective, of course, and Ruben Fleischer’s choices may please fans who feared the film’s potential dourness or self-seriousness, but his approach didn’t do much for me. The violence, too, is offputtingly sanitized. This seems to me to miss the point of choosing Brock/Venom as the anti-hero vehicle for a new spin-off franchise; why do that and then immediately juggle the plot pieces to make him sympathetic and traditionally heroic? This signals not only artistic conservativism, but a failure of nerve, ignoring the possibilities opened up, for instance, by the Deadpool movies.

What are the odds you'll enjoy Venom? If you think of it less as a Spider-man spinoff than a weirdly 90s-ish retrograde monster film, you might find something redeeming in its brashness. Consider it a modern-day Spawn (1997)! I think highly of the film’s three main leads—Tom Hardy as Brock/Venom, Michelle Williams as Anne Weying, and Riz Ahmed as Carlton Drake/Riot—but I’m not sold on the casting choices or direction. Hardy’s natural charisma, though suitable for Venom, works against Eddie’s character. In an early scene, as Eddie is being followed by Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s scientists, he delivers a little monologue about being able to disappear into a crowd and not be recalled by witnesses. With his affected speech patterns and line cadences, his offbeat posture and his imposing, muscled bulk of a body, really? I think he’d be remembered plenty. Drake, as written and as played by Ahmed, lacks gravitas and doesn’t project intelligence or the calculating, sadistic streak the film is going for. His behavior, on the contrary, seems erratic and childish, and his science-related lines do him no favors. Given the resources at his disposal, Drake repeatedly overlooks the obvious—how about putting those frequencies that seem to incapacitate the symbiotes to good use, for instance, or hacking the text/call records of Dora Skirth’s phone to find out with whom she was working? An early scene during a lab tour in which Drake asks other children to be silent so a young girl named Allie can ask a question, and then rhapsodizes megalomaniacally on the importance of listening while never giving her the chance to talk, is representative of the film’s lack of finesse and bungling execution; as a character statement on Drake, it’s obvious, and as a joke, as flat as week-old soda. In fact, I’d say that most of the dialogue in this film is pretty atrocious. How many variations of “Don’t let him get away” or “I’ve got him” or “He’s ours now” are we expected to endure? Is the line “You are a loser, Eddie?” really supposed to be funny—I mean, how have these symbiotes who’ve barely arrived on our planet and hardly had time to learn about our culture and history already mastered the nuances of colloquial terms like “loser”? Michelle Williams, though she gives it her all, is sadly underused, relegated to a peon of desire and occasional support system for Eddie. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better.

What Are Our Chances? Basically Zero – Spoilers Ahead

More than once, Venom’s editing had me scratching my head. In what is supposed to be a dramatic cut away right before the title card, we see a person walking down a road at night. True, the context is one of symbiotic possession, but the scene itself is desultory and uninvolving. We don’t know this person, and we can anticipate the result of their shuffle, so there are essentially no stakes involved of any kind. Unfortunately, this stillborn introduction turns out to be an accurate harbinger of things to come. The editing is again flummoxing during action sequences. Consider when Drake’s Head Honcho is trying to capture Eddie/Venom. What’s the purpose of all those cuts back to Drake, alternately supercilious, glowering, and somnolent, besides taking us out of the alleged excitement of the hunt?

One of the effects, besides tedium, of the film’s length and paucity of effective pacing, is entirely too much time to ruminate on a plot that withers as it’s scrutinized. The film’s entire space mission feels both superfluous and undercooked. Our understanding of symbiote culture is zero. Venom and Riot’s competing philosophies for the future of the Earth and humankind, rival ideas which are putatively pivotal for us to become invested in the movie’s third-act standoff, consist of little more than snarky one-liners and sophomoric exposition. These symbiotes—representatives of an entire civilization, we are supposed to believe—were found on a comet. How long were they there? Do they have spacefaring technology? If so, why didn’t they use that to travel from their system to ours? If not, how did they hitch the ride on the comet in the first place? Don’t they require hosts to survive? What was their plan? Spend thousands of years near death, in the agony of space, hoping to run into someone useful down the line? And this is all just about events prior to those shown in the film. You get the gist.

Let’s talk about Venom’s confrontations. Here the film could at least serve up some shots of stylized adrenaline, contextualized with character development. But for that to work the action would need to be distinctive, and we would require a modicum of emotional commitment to the parties involved. Instead of any of that, we’re offered: Venom vs. nameless goons, Venom vs. drones, Venom vs. generic police officers, and so on. That initial car chase sequence is one of the most unexciting I’ve seen in a recent movie. Compare it to the astonishing, white-knuckle Parisian drive in Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), or the vehicular club escape montage in Black Panther (2018), or even the superb highway confrontation in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I can only conclude that laziness, unimaginativeness, or a combination thereof are to blame for Venom’s schlocky night-time drive. And an early conceit chock-full of potential—Eddie discovering that his body has radical new abilities, and learning to converse with and adapt to the reality of an inner voice no one else can hear—was anticipated by this year’s Upgrade, which does a lot more with less, and more aesthetically to boot.

My biggest gripe is the closing sense of disappointment related to the film universe’s morality. When Venom asks Eddie, near the end of the movie, how we can know who bad people are, and Eddie essentially says that figuring that out is easy, I thought the film might for a moment rise to the level of meta-commentary on Eddie’s own naïveté or foolishness, laughing with us at his glaring blind-spot. Instead, it immediately presents us with a cartoon stock bad guy precisely of the type Eddie was talking about, providing confirmation of his worldview. Recent films involving superheroes have gone out of their way to depict conflicted characters confronting ethical dilemmas and the tough consequences of their decisions. Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) readily come to mind, and of course Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy contains many fine moments of moral greyness. Anti-heroism and grimness aren’t exculpatory factors, either: cue, for example, Logan (2017). Venom makes a deliberate choice--one that appears motivated by crass assumptions around commercial viability proven false multiple times over--to sidestep this entire edifice of relative sophistication and instead, full folly ahead, build a new structure on a facilely simplistic, and therefore wafer-thin, foundation. I’m afraid that’s not a building in which I care to spend more time.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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