‘Venom’ suffers lack of direction, poor character development

A promotional poster for 'Venom,' starring Tom Hardy, is pictured. via IMDb

Just as the rise of a superhero begets the appearance of a supervillain, the surplus of superhero films in today’s cinema will no doubt spawn supervillain films in the near future. Sony Pictures’ “Venom” has attempted to kickstart this villainous takeover, telling the story of the titular, parasitic anti-hero. However, confusing plotlines, one-dimensional characters and lackluster special effects are among the many failures preventing this fledgling film from achieving critical success.

The film revolves around Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist living with his fiancée, attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), in San Francisco. Eddie is given the order to interview Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the controversial CEO of a large bioengineering corporation known as the Life Foundation. He loses his job and his fiancée after stealing classified information in an attempt to confront Drake over recent allegations.

Unbeknownst to Eddie, the Life Corporation is more nefarious than it seems: On an exploratory space mission, one of their probes discovered a comet teeming with gooey aliens that Drake calls “symbiotes,” which possess superhuman powers but must bond with a host to survive on Earth. Unless the host is a so-called “perfect match,” the pairing will fail and the host will die an unpleasant death. Surprising to absolutely nobody, given Ahmed’s heavy-handed portrayal as an evil genius, Drake begins tricking San Francisco’s homeless population into volunteering for human testing. Multitudes die after each attempt at symbiosis fails.

Six months after his life has fallen apart, Brock is contacted by scientist Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who shares this reprehensible information with him and then breaks him into a testing facility to expose Drake. One large mishap later and Brock encounters the symbiote named Venom (voiced by Hardy), which finds him to be a perfect fit. Possessing body augmentation, super-strength and regenerative abilities thanks to the nefarious alien, Brock must adapt to his new life as he fights to take down Drake once and for all.

In a movie mired by decisions ranging from bad to terrible, the one thing “Venom” does well is its portrayal of the interactions between Brock and Venom. Brock frequently talks to himself as he attempts to control and reason with the alien inhabiting his body, injecting moments of comedy into the faltering movie. Admittedly, these moments are more than cheap laughs: Tom Hardy does a fantastic job juxtaposing Brock’s confusion with Venom’s sadism, and he creates some genuinely funny scenes by pure virtue of his acting.

Unfortunately, “Venom” is not a comedy — in fact, the movie does not know what to do with itself. It starts on a serious note with an overwhelmingly generic plotline about an evil company that abuses the impoverished, but abruptly lurches into slapstick comedy after Brock bonds with Venom. Then, “Venom” wants to be heartwarming, and in the end, it crash-lands back into comedy. The film cannot even fully commit to its violence thanks to a PG-13 rating, which is a shame considering that Brock/Venom is quite literally a gargantuan monster oozing teeth, weaponry and predatory instincts. Instead, viewers must settle for off-screen decapitation, which declaws Venom as a character and heavily diminishes his terrifying appearance.

The plot doesn’t fare any better, being exactly as dull as it sounds. Suspension of disbelief is required for every major event in the film, which is overflowing with questionable choices. The list is endless, from Drake’s plan to colonize space that involves forcing human-alien symbiosis, which has an abysmal success rate, to Venom randomly deciding he wants to help save the planet because he’s also a ‘loser’ like Brock, and the symbiote Riot, the main antagonist of the film, who wants to bring millions of his kind to conquer Earth (though the movie goes to great lengths explaining that the odds of finding a perfect host for any one symbiote are incredibly slim). Oh, and a reliance on  lucky coincidences are the final straw: The overall result is a hackneyed mess of contrived events which are painful to watch unfold onscreen.

Much as the plot is uninspired, so too are the characters who enact it. Drake is flat enough to be a pancake, and the fact that he bonds with a symbiote does nothing to improve his illogical character motivation. In fact, he’s the perfect example of how not to do an evil genius: pretentious, uninviting and irrational. Weying’s character cannot catch a break, either. She is written as if the screenwriters wanted her to be more just “the girlfriend” but could not commit to having an independent female lead, and her character feels irrelevant instead of badass as a result. The rest of the supporting cast are, if anything, caricatures instead of characters, and they do nothing to fill the movie’s insatiable hunger for likeable, three-dimensional characters. Even Brock is no exception; Hardy’s acting is simply not good enough to save his character from mediocre writing.

Speaking of three-dimensional, the special effects are also unimaginative and muddled, despite the excellent source material the film has to work with. Aliens that bond with humans and make literal weapons out of their bodies should not be hard to mess up, but the movie doesn’t succeed here, either. The computer-generated imagery looks glossy and fake, and the aliens are little more than piles of writhing, colorless goo (although the combined form of Brock and Venom manages to come across as terrifying). Even the final fight scene looks wrong, with gooey explosions that further disorient an already hard-to-follow action sequence. Much like the rest of the movie, it is all a hard pass.

“Venom” will certainly leave viewers paralyzed, but with boredom and disinterest instead of fear and excitement. The film’s ending leaves room for a sequel, and given its incredible opening weekend, it might receive one. If Sony has even an ounce of foresight, it will close the chapter on this mishandled villain instead of letting it propagate a lackluster franchise.


Summary

"Venom" is a mediocre supervillain film with an identity crisis, and its lackluster plot combined with flat characters leave more of an impact than the film's few good moments.

2 stars
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