A privately-owned spaceship from the Life Foundation is bringing back samples from space when something goes wrong and it crashes in Malaysia. Life Foundation is owned by Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a wunderkind and genius in the field of bioengineering and his ambition is to cure disease and prolong life no matter the consequences. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist focusing on exposing the powerful taking advantage of the poor. He works for a cable network out of San Francisco and is known for his hard-hitting and uncompromising reporting. His boss gives him an assignment to do a puff piece on Dr. Drake and, despite his reservations, he agrees. Eddie is engaged to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), an attorney working for a law firm representing Drake and Life Foundation in a wrongful death lawsuit. One night, Eddie is up late to get a drink and notices Anne’s laptop is blinking from an incoming email about the lawsuit and he reads it. The next day during the interview, Eddie asks Drake about the lawsuit and Drake abruptly ends the interview. Because of Drake’s power and influence, Eddie and Anne are both fired from their jobs and Anne breaks off her engagement with Eddie. Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) does research at Life Foundation. The spaceship that crashed was carrying intelligent alien lifeforms found on a comet. One of them escaped and caused the crash, but three others were still found in their containment chambers. Life Foundation has been bringing in homeless people and experimenting on merging the aliens, called symbiotes, with humans. Troubled by the lack of ethics Drake is showing, Skirth contacts Eddie. At first, he isn’t interested as Drake had already ruined his life, but he changes his mind when a street woman he knows disappears from her usual place. Skirth sneaks Eddie into the lab where he finds his friend and tries to get her out of a containment room. She gets out and attacks Eddie and the symbiote merged with her moves over to Eddie. Suddenly, Eddie has increased strength and agility and, the longer he is merged with the alien, the more control the symbiote that calls himself Venom exerts over Eddie. Drake sends his head of security, Roland Treece (Scott Haze), and his men after Eddie, but Venom doesn’t want to be captured as he has begun to like Eddie. Meanwhile, the symbiote that escaped the spaceship and caused the crash, is making his way to San Francisco by hijacking various people to get on planes and travel. That symbiote, called Riot, has plans for the next Life Foundation spaceship and for life on Earth.
“Venom” has been roasted by the real critics with 32% on Rotten Tomatoes and 35 on Metacritic. Consistent numbers like this usually mean a movie is awful and nearly unwatchable. I almost dreaded seeing Tom Hardy and the rest of the cast embarrass themselves in what was likely a poorly constructed and amateurish production. “Venom” has its problems, but it isn’t the two-hour catastrophe it has been made out to be.
“Venom” is actually pretty good. The strength of the film is in the performance of Tom Hardy. After Venom makes himself known, Hardy has to react to a voice that isn’t there (probably read off camera) and establish a relationship that hews close to the Odd Couple. Eddie is dealing with being blackballed by the journalism community and the loss of his relationship. He’d rather work a menial job and stay under the radar. Venom is an aggressive personality and comes into the partnership with a plan and Eddie has no choice but to come along. It is an uncomfortable arrangement at first that morphs into a friendship based on compromise (for now) and mutual respect. Each provides the other with something they need. It is both parasitic and cooperative and none of it would work without Tom Hardy’s ability to make us believe this impossible arrangement.
Riz Ahmed turns Carlton Drake into more than just your standard villain. Drake is looking to improve the quality of life for everyone on Earth. His methods of getting to that improvement are what make him a villain. Ahmed easily slips between the slick and likable philanthropist and the manipulative and power-hungry megalomaniac, sometimes within the same scene. Drake, while not the most deeply written character, clearly wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t want to waste time on things like ethics or safe testing. He’s more of a “let’s see what happens” kind of guy and Riz Ahmed plays him in a way that is both likable and detestable.
If anyone is let down by the script it is Michelle Williams. Her Anne becomes willing to accept and believe just about anything she is told once the movie dives deep into the story. Her character sees Venom in action and understands the basics of what’s going on, but she also jumps in with both feet to an extent that seems unbelievable. I liked that she was willing to help, but Anne does things that don’t make sense given her lack of experience with alien symbiotes. While this willingness helps move the plot along it also weakens what could have been a much stronger character.
“Venom” can’t quite decide what it is. Is it a buddy comedy? Is it a superhero (or anti-hero) origin story? Is it a drama about ethics and the desire to put profits over people? The film tries to do all these things and only succeeds with one of them. When it focuses on the relationship between Eddie and Venom, the movie sails along smoothly. It is entertaining as we not only learn more about the symbiote, but about Eddie as well. It makes a strong case for the two being the focus of several movies in a shared Spider-Man universe which will eventually put the parasite and the web-slinger against each other in a film. I am hopeful the next movie will have a more focused story and not waste so much time on secondary story elements that might work in a comic book but not in a film.
“Venom” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action and language. Venom bites the heads off a couple of people. We don’t see the aftermath but there’s no doubting what happens. Venom throws characters around in a large battle scene. While Eddie doesn’t want to hurt anyone there are clearly some serious injuries and likely deaths. A character is impaled by a large spike emitted by one of the symbiotes. Another shoots several small spikes simultaneously, killing several people. There is other assorted violence including car crashes, rocket explosions, falls from great heights and more. Foul language is scattered and mild.
Director Ruben Fleischer is responsible for one of my favorite films: “Zombieland.” He will also be directing its sequel, “Zombieland Too,” due out next year. Most of his movies have been of a smaller scale until “Venom.” With a worldwide opening weekend of $205-million, and a debut in China in the future, it seems likely a sequel and an eventual meet up with Peter Parker are in the cards. I hope the story issues get worked out as Venom is an interesting character and Tom Hardy handles the double duty very well.
“Venom” gets four stars out of five.
This week I’ll be review “First Man” for WIMZ.com.
Other movies this week:
Bad Times at the El Royale—
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween—
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