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VENOM

★★★

MONSTROUS FUN

THEATRICAL REVIEW
LATEST REVIEWS
By Jake Watt
4th October 2018

A conspiracy by Lady Gaga fans to support her film ‘A Star is Born’. A theme song by elderly rapper Eminem from his critically-panned new album, 'Kamikaze'. A disastrous interview with Tom Hardy claiming the best parts of the film were left of the floor of the editing suite. Plans to make a "Venom-verse”, with Jared Leto as an obscure vampire character, Morbius. Dorky fans calling for a boycott of ‘Venom’ so that Sony Pictures would have to sell the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios.

Nothing I had heard about this new superhero film instilled any kind of confidence. I had dreaded it since learning that it had gone into pre-production. The only people who seemed to be excited about it were "monster erotica" fetishists (seriously, look it up).

So, imagine my surprise when I ended up enjoying 'Venom' quite a bit.

For non-nerds: in the original comics, when Spider-Man gets covered by an inky glob of alien goo during a space adventure, the goo bonds with him in the form of a black costume, giving him enhanced powers. After being brought to Earth and rejected by the superhero, the creature (dubbed “the symbiote”) rebounds with Eddie Brock, a workplace rival of Peter Parker at The Daily Bugle newspaper. Together, they become a big, buff, dark-coloured version of Spider-Man ... the villainous Venom.

With Topher Grace playing Eddie Brock, director Sam Raimi explored the Peter Parker/Venom relationship faithfully in ‘Spider-Man 3’ back in 2007 (despite the director claiming that he was forced to incorporate the character by producer Avi Arad).

11 years later and things have changed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now a multi-billion dollar juggernaut owned by Disney and ‘Venom’ exists in a weird limbo between two film studios – it’s a Sony Pictures-produced spin-off of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, a franchise whose rights Sony now shares with Marvel Studios. Currently, Marvel is the only studio that can use Spider-Man on film.

How does a 'Venom' film work without its symbiotic relationship with Marvel's iconic webslinger?

In director Ruben Fleischer's new origin story, the amorphous, liquid-like alien still takes journalist Eddie Brock as its host, but the character is reimagined as Tom Hardy, complete with a Tom Hardy-style loopy American accent. Fired from The Daily Globe in New York, Brock has relocated to San Francisco and hosts an Alex Jones-lite investigative program that targets big businesses who exploit the little people. He also lives with his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, ‘All The Money In The World’, ‘The Greatest Showman’, who seems to have stumbled onto the set by accident), a lawyer for a bioengineering corporation, Life Foundation.

SWITCH: 'VENOM' TRAILER

When a spaceship owned by Life Foundation’s billionaire CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, ‘Rogue One’, playing a boring version of Elon Musk) crashes to Earth with alien symbiote samples, Brock is tasked with conducting a puff-piece interview on Drake to improve the PR of his company. Brock hacks into Anne’s laptop, steals some sensitive information and confronts Drake, who has become obsessed with preparing humanity for Earth’s inevitable ecological collapse, and begun illegally experimenting on vagrants. This leads to Brock and Anne being fired from their jobs and the end of their relationship. So when a whistleblower (Jenny Slate, ‘Gifted’) wants to expose Drake’s deadly human/symbiote experiments, she calls a near-destitute Brock to finish the job. Instead of a hot story, he winds up with a sassy parasite “up his ass” that speaks inside Eddie’s head in a low, devilish mumble even when his shark-toothed face stays hidden.

Guess what? ‘Venom’ has flaws. It opens with a shockingly perfunctory introduction to the symbiotes as they crash to Earth, where they immediately start possessing people. The film also has three credited scriptwriters, so the story feels like it’s been put through the wringer a few times.

However, the majority of the film’s weaknesses are the result of ‘Venom’ trying to adhere to the tiresome-but-lucrative Marvel model of tick-box filmmaking.

An origin story with a dull villain? Tick. Under-utilised female leads and a climax with a nearly incomprehensible battle between two computer-generated blobs? Tick. Even the film’s mild rating is a concession by Sony that leaves the door open for the character to eventually crossover into a family-friendly ‘Spider-Man’ movie in the future.

What Sony forgets is that ‘X-Men’, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman’ movies, and Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ series have all proved that non-MCU superhero movies can be good. When ‘Venom’ stops trying to mimic Marvel’s studio-calculated formula for franchise-building, it becomes ridiculously fun.

There is action-aplenty. Brawls, a bone-breaking motorcycle chase and a lot of Jason Bourne-meets-Leigh Whannell’s ‘Upgrade’ stuff as Brock is remote controlled by his parasite. When the new dual-life form morphs into something resembling a combination of a gorilla, a dinosaur and an outdoor toilet, everything kicks up a notch.

What Sony forgets is that ‘X-Men’, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman’ movies, and Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ series have all proved that non-MCU superhero movies can be good. When ‘Venom’ stops trying to mimic Marvel’s studio-calculated formula for franchise-building, it becomes ridiculously fun.

Tom Hardy, knowing how hammy you need to go in comic book films, journeys deep into Nicolas Cage “full werewolf” territory. The emotional range he draws upon is similar to Cage’s performance in ‘Mandy’ and it's a lot funnier and more engaging than the bland performances by Paul Rudd in ‘Ant-Man’, Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Doctor Strange’ and whatever Mark Ruffalo was attempting with Bruce Banner in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’.

Brock’s rapport with the jacked-up CG Venom, with its ludicrously outsized tongue and craving for eating people’s heads, is amusing. In ‘Spider-Man 3’, the symbiote brought out Peter Parker's dark side and Eddie Brock was the kind of dark double that Alfred Hitchcock’s films (such as his magnum opus, ‘Vertigo’) obsessed over. In ‘Venom’, the alien has a buddy-cop relationship with its host – like ‘Lethal Weapon’, the two have very different and conflicting personalities but are forced to work together to defeat criminals.

Hardy has compared the two characters to ‘Ren and Stimpy’, and given each a distinctive voice: a bizarro American accent for Brock; and a “James Brown lounge lizard”-like voice for Venom, modulated to sound more sinister. It’s a hoot. Consider this exchange where Brock contemplates battling Riot, an even more powerful symbiote:

BROCK (squelchy New York accent): “Can you take this dude?”

VENOM (deep voice): “He’s got shit like you ain’t never even seen before.”

BROCK: “Fuck it.”

Aside from Brock and Venom’s relationship, some of the best moments are scenes of superhero body horror that feel like teen-friendly takes on David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly Ultimate Collection’, the highlight being a dishevelled Hardy chomping the heads off live lobsters in a fancy restaurant. Recalling ‘Shivers’, a parallel sequence of another symbiote body-hopping its way from Malaysia to San Francisco (at one point possessing a cute pig-tailed child) is also rather creepy.

While ‘Venom’ has plenty of rough edges, I’d rather watch a scrappy film that was genuinely entertaining and different than another by-the-numbers instalment in a franchise whose edges have been sanded down into nothingness. Not every superhero production needs to be as carefully house-styled and tastefully manicured as the typical MCU entry. These films come out at a rate of two or three per year and, frankly, ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘Doctor Strange’ and even ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ really blurred together.

When the film relaxes and stops sucking in its gut, ‘Venom’ is reminiscent of the post-Spider-Man, pre-MCU superhero pictures. It’s more of a cross between John Carpenter's 'Big Trouble in Little China' and Guillermo del Toro's ‘Blade 2’ than a modern superhero film. If you think that sounds like fun, go and see it. You won’t be disappointed.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 04/10/2018
RUN TIME: 1h 52m
CAST: Tom Hardy
Michelle Williams
Riz Ahmed
Woody Harrelson
Jenny Slate
Reid Scott
Scott Haze
Michelle Lee
Jared Bankens
Al-Jaleel Knox
DIRECTOR: Ruben Fleischer
WRITER: Dante Harper
PRODUCERS: Avi Arad
Matt Tolmach
Amy Pascal
SCORE: Ludwig Göransson
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