A body horror comic book origin story that’s also a buddy comedy about a guy and the creature overtaking his being.
It may be the first feature to give Marvel’s alien symbiote headlining status, but Venom still rampages across the screen with a sense of deja vu. And yet, for all of the movie’s recognisable elements – reviving a character previously seen in 2007’s far-from-memorable Spider-Man 3, relaying his beginnings and endeavouring to set up a new franchise, for example – its familiarity hails from an unexpected source. Indeed, Venom’s most obvious aspect is also its least intentional, all thanks to a low-budget blend of horror, science fiction and action that beat it to cinemas earlier this year. On the page, Venom precedes Leigh Whannell’s thriller Upgrade, but the comic book character’s new film incarnation plays like alternate-reality version of the latter, or vice-versa.
In Upgrade and Venom alike, a man’s body comes under the control of an invading entity. More than that, a down-on-his luck guy loses his girlfriend, wallows in misery, gets entangled with a tech whiz and finds himself playing host to something that can control his moves and can speak to him, although only he can hear it. It doesn’t hurt that Venom stars Tom Hardy, while Upgrade is anchored by Hardy doppelgänger Logan Marshall-Green. What firmly connects the two, however, is a willingness to have fun with their somewhat shared scenario. Venom may ultimately remain constrained by the usual superhero template, but it’s as playful as its counterpart in its own way. Driven by a keen awareness of its B-movie leanings, the film happily eschews grim seriousness in favour of goofiness.
When viewers first meet Eddie Brock (Hardy, Dunkirk), the San Francisco-based investigative journalist is flying high –professionally, courtesy of his own series; personally, due to his engagement to corporate lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, I Feel Pretty). Then he’s assigned to interview one of her clients, inventor and entrepreneur Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, The OA), the aftermath of which leaves him both unemployed and single. Six months later, a new lead brings Brock back to Drake, and introduces him to research that the secretive figure has been trying to keep under wraps. Of course, an extra-terrestrial organism that binds with human hosts to create a super-strength creature isn’t something that can stay hidden for long, especially after the symbiote named Venom bonds with Brock and starts wreaking havoc.
Originally an antagonist to Spider-Man in the Marvel comics, Venom is the anti-hero protagonist in the film that shares his name, with the villain of the piece falling both to Drake and to the other symbiotes stampeding across earth. That said, Venom is less concerned with plumbing the depths of a character who’s hardly a saviour but is presented as the better option in murky circumstances, and more eager to use its concept for irreverence. What results is a body horror comic book origin story that’s also a buddy comedy about a guy and the critter overtaking his being. In the familiar stakes, it owes as much of a debt to 2017’s Ryan Reynolds-starring space thriller Life, gothic horror classic Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the filmographies of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, as it does to cartoonish odd-couple antics that include TV animations The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rick and Morty.
That’s a difficult, seemingly ill-fitting, sometimes awkward blend, to be certain, but it’s one that director Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle scribes Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg and Fifty Shades of Grey screenwriter Kelly Marcel use to the film’s advantage more often than not. Wielding amusement in a typically non-comic situation is nothing new for the helmer of Zombieland, and the two features share a loose sensibility – a vibe that proves distinctively, welcomely out of step with the bulk of comic book fare today, such as those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that Venom isn’t a part of. Alas, combining the humorous atmosphere with the movie’s routine action scenes is less convincing, although a mid-film chase sequence is a fast-paced highlight. Generally blandly chaotic even when they’re infused with the feature’s overall energy, the carnage and battles also fall victim to proving far less interesting than the war waged between Hardy and his CGI parasite.
In a movie that knows there’s something more than a little silly about bringing its various parts together, and leans into it as far as it can – not quite to the over-the-top, smug Deadpool level, yet still without completely taking things seriously – Hardy follows suit. His performance is committed to conveying Brock and Venom’s conflict, all raging within one body, and does so with swagger, staggering and slapstick as he essentially argues with himself in different voices. It doesn’t escape notice that the actor has considerably more to do than Ahmed ostensibly rehashing his Jason Bourne role, the underused Williams as the token love interest and Jenny Slate (Hotel Artemis) as a helpful scientist, but his scene-stealing isn’t a mere case of his greater prominence. There’s a tangible physicality to his efforts, an unhinged jumpiness, that couldn’t better embody Venom’s very modest charms. The film mightn’t present an upgrade of its core concept, or of a premise already seen on screen this year, or of the superhero genre, but it takes what it has, runs with it and bounces around within its parameters to mostly engaging effect.
3 stars ★★★
Director: Ruben Fleischer
US, 2018, 112 mins
Release date: October 4
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