**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras C+
starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze
written by Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel
directed by Ruben Fleischer
by Bryant Frazer The history of Venom, a rippled black mass of sentient alien muscle with a 'roided-out appearance and a gnarly personality to match, is complicated even for a comic-book origin story. It goes sorta like this: Way back in the 1980s, the Marvel Comics powers-that-be were looking to juice interest in Spider-Man. As a solution, they gave him a sleek black-and-white costume to replace the familiar red-and-blue outfit. Long story short, that suit turned out to be an alien symbiote with a mind of its own; it insinuates itself into human bodies and coexists with them in an ostensibly mutually beneficial relationship. It didn't take long for Spidey to get wise and ditch the organism, but Marvel brought Spidey's black-and-white look back later by having Black Cat sew him a non-sentient version of the costume. By then, Marvel was wooing artist Todd McFarlane to the book. Sure, McFarlane said, he was interested in Spider-Man--old-school, red-and-blue Spider-Man. So Marvel scrambled to once again get rid of the black outfit.
I go into the details not just because they demonstrate how arbitrary Venom's creation was--the end result of wishy-washy decisions made by the Marvel brass about the colour of Spider-Man's leotard. Their randomness also helps explain why the first half of Venom, the movie, is such a baffling exercise in tortured storytelling. It begins with the crash of a spacecraft that had been returning to Earth with samples of alien symbiotes gathered on behalf of a bio-engineering corporation called the Life Foundation. One of the symbiotes escapes, going on a violent, Terminator 2-inspired body-to-body bender. This urgent-seeming narrative thread is intercut with the story of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), posited as a crusading San Francisco TV journalist. Eddie files stories on Big Tech, corporate corruption, and the plight of the homeless while reading Eckhart Tolle and promising fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams?!) he's changed in the time since he was run out of New York after what's referred to, enigmatically, as "the Daily Globe incident." That's why it's perplexing when his boss, Jack (Ron Cephas Jones, uncredited for some reason), demands that his best investigative reporter give Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the Elon Musk-like CEO of the aforementioned Life Foundation, a journalistic tongue bath with a puff piece about that company's space program. Rather than declining the assignment as a conflict of interest (Anne works for a firm that happens to represent the Life Foundation), Eddie accepts it, promises to ask softball questions, and then, as one does, accesses Anne's private e-mail to collect incriminating evidence against the company that he can spring on Drake in the interview. "For a smart guy you really are a dumbass," Jack declares the next day, before summarily firing Eddie.
It's a salient point. Eddie Brock is not bright, nor does he seem to be particularly driven. Next time we see him, he's living alone in a shitty apartment in the Tenderloin, hiding underneath a pillow as his neighbour practices on a wailing electric guitar and cowering behind the Shredded Wheat as the local protection racketeer threatens his favourite bodega owner. Why are we watching a movie about this guy? Well, it's complicated. Eddie's character is dull as a rock because the movie's creators are walking a tightrope. On the one hand, the Sony-produced Venom is not part of the official Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which means that Spider-Man (who is currently part of the MCU) can't appear. Which means Eddie's grudge against Spidey--the "Daily Globe incident" that constitutes the entirety of his comic-book motivations--can't be invoked as backstory. On the other hand, because Sony is holding out hope for a future Marvel-sanctioned Venom/Spider-Man crossover, the film is unwilling to rethink Eddie's character, lest he stray too far from those comic-book origins. The result is a profoundly failed adaptation, its imaginative possibilities limited even by Marvel-movie standards, with its protagonist meandering pointlessly and pathetically through his paces until the film finally gets him on the Charles Atlas program for super-schlubs that is Venom's raison d'être.
Getting the symbiote in the same room with Eddie involves machinations that are as warmed-over as anything else in the film--security protocols at the Life Foundation are risibly lax from top to bottom--and they're followed by some attempts at lowbrow physical comedy, but Venom doesn't really get down to superhero action until Drake dispatches some thugs to retrieve the symbiote from Eddie. The finest moment comes in the scene where Eddie hears Venom inside his head for the first time. After Eddie, his physical strength augmented by Venom's muscle and shape-changing abilities, beats the hell out of Drake's squad, a deep, rich, and gravelly voice (also Tom Hardy) muses hungrily, "Let's bite all their heads off and pile them in the corner." When Eddie expresses bafflement, the sonorous alien presence explains further: "Pile of bodies. Pile of heads." I cackled. It's funny in large part because it suggests a boldly surreal image in a movie that feels so exceptionally tentative otherwise, as if director Ruben Fleischer isn't sure whether or not he has permission to cause offense in excess of that allowed by a PG-13 rating. Even the subtext, such as it is, is awkwardly handled--Venom is at least as aware of climate change as a global issue as it is of the deep cultural rift between the Silicon Valley tech economy and the rest of San Francisco's citizenry, though it's reluctant to engage either issue more than superficially.
Once Venom hits the home stretch, in its last half-hour or so, it's not such a bad ride. Although Fleischer doesn't have any special flair for staging an action sequence, he does put the camera in the right place to generate money shot after money shot, providing enough raw material for film editors Alan Baumgarten and Maryann Brandon to stitch together. One set-piece pits Venom against a SWAT team in the lobby of an office building. It's not incoherent, but it's mainly a succession of cool images, including a shot where Venom catches a tear-gas grenade in his fist, smoke spewing wildly from between his claws, and another showing him using the body of one SWAT officer to beat the hell out of the rest of the SWAT officers. (Various grunts and groans are overdubbed as the policemen are dashed against stone walls and thrown through glass windows to give the impression that, you know, everyone's still alive in the end, albeit with years of physical therapy to look forward to.) It's not great, but it works. Speaking of cool images, Anne cuts an imposing figure when she undergoes a transformation of her own in an all-too-brief scene that suggests a different direction Venom could have gone.
DP Matthew Libatique, as adventurous as ever, lends the film a colourful gloss rich in lens flares, leaning towards washes of cool blue, that belies its limited budget, yet overall production values seem a little weak compared to the typical Marvel movie. I do give it points for using at least some authentic San Francisco locations, rather than shooting entirely in Vancouver or wherever. On the other hand, I lost track of how many times Eddie is seen riding his motorcycle past Atlanta's Rialto theatre during the film's big centrepiece car chase through downtown SF. And a small but significant portion of the dialogue was clearly rewritten and overdubbed in post, which, along with a curiously abbreviated 92-minute running time (sans lengthy credits and post-credits material), suggests some late-in-the-game course corrections. It makes me wonder if Venom made more or less sense before the changes were put in place. However it gets there, it all culminates in exactly what you'd expect: one sentient puddle of goo fighting another in slow-motion. That's boring from a narrative standpoint, but it does have an intriguingly hellish visual appeal, these two gigantic shredded garbage bags twisting and grasping at each other, all eyes, teeth, and tongues with the occasional anguished human face poking out like a bit player in a Marvel Comics adaptation of Dante's Inferno. And Tom Hardy's vocal performance as Venom is, maybe, undervalued. His portrayal of a demonic alien symbiote doing his best to be polite among humans is not only funny but kind of insightful, too--he comes off like a feral animal trying hard to be a housecat. Still, you get the feeling Venom is a shadow of what it wants to be: a mean little number held in check by the conservative mandate of its studio bosses. As the T-shirt slogan goes, "Corporate rock still sucks."
THE 4K UHD DISC
Sony has pulled out all the stops for Venom's home-video debut, releasing a UHD BD with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision colour, along with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack for good measure. (I reviewed the Dolby Vision version but played audio as Dolby TrueHD 7.1.) Photographed mostly with 2.8K ARRI Alexa cameras, Venom is a worthy specimen for UHD upscaling. The 2.40:1, 2160p transfer isn't as sharp as it could be, probably due in part to the lower-resolution acquisition but also to lensing choices by Libatique. The image is as noiseless as you'd expect from digital acquisition, so UHD's advantage in resolving grain textures is pretty much a wash here. Still, the picture feels more solid and coherent in UHD. A meticulous frame-by-frame comparison backs up that impression, revealing various types of artifacts in fast-action sequences in HD, especially along the edges of the meticulously detailed Venom character, that aren't seen in UHD. At the same time, some of the tinier details are simply missing or are only faintly visible in the HD version.
You might not notice those differences on a casual viewing, or on a smaller screen, but you'll certainly appreciate the difference HDR and Dolby Vision make. I immediately took note of the intense reds of flashing emergency-vehicle lights in the film's San Francisco night shots. Venom is one of those movies that's full of candy-coloured cityscapes, captured largely in ground-shots that allow you to see deep into the shadows, and HDR really captures the way urban streets are lit up at night by headlights, neon signs, and more. Unlike some early HDR epics, the brightness never gets cranked painfully high, except maybe when the exploding drones that chase Eddie on his motorcycle burst into bright blue balls of flame fringed with pinks and purples. I also dug the way Dolby Vision accented the glossy blacks of Venom's body, with the attendant specular highlights flashing white among the shadows. It doesn't make him look more realistic, per se, but it helps establish the depth and scale of the CG character--and maybe that's the same thing after all. Meanwhile, Venom has a positively ripping soundtrack, flinging heavy grunts and rumbles around the room from every direction. I'd never call it subtle--the intensity can be a little oppressive, especially when the volume cranks to fuck-you decibel levels during the serial action climaxes--but it's powerful and effective for what it is.
Special features are less expansive--but, let's be honest, an hour of supplementary material is plenty to get the gist of what was going on behind the scenes. You'll have to pop in the BD to watch 'em because they're not on the UHD BD. Five short featurettes made in roughly the same style--talking heads alternating with film clips and/or behind-the-scenes footage--constitute the bulk of the extras. Kevin Smith is a recurring presence, presumably repping the comic-book fanbase, as are director Ruben Fleischer, VFX supervisor Paul Franklin, production designer Oliver Scholl, and others. "From Symbiote to Screen" (20 mins.) recaps the convoluted comic-book background of Venom. Though producer (and top Marvel honcho) Avi Arad has a pretty good line about fear of technology being the driving force in Marvel Comics, this ends up spending an awful lot of time explaining what happens in Venom. "The Antihero" (10 mins.) offers up even more comic-book history, this time with the aim of shedding light on how the unusual nature of the Venom character--he's certainly not a typical Marvel hero--influenced development of the film project. Capping this piece is an interesting look at how the sound department handled live playback of Hardy's just-recorded Venom dialogue, giving him an audio track to play against when shooting scenes featuring banter between the Symbiote and its human host.
"The Lethal Protector in Action" (9 mins.) covers action and stunt work, bringing a lot of rough-and-tumble personnel into the frame: stunt coordinators Chris O'Hara (first unit) and Andy Gill (second unit), fight coordinator Tim Connolly, motorcycle stunt double Jimmy Roberts, and daredevil Robbie Maddison. The widely admired stunt coordinator and second-unit director Spiro Razatos is mentioned but sadly does not appear, though second-unit VFX supervisor Alexander Seaman shows how footage of Hardy on his motorcycle was captured on a stage for compositing into city scenes. "Venom Vision" (7 mins.) is mainly focused on Ruben Fleischer, who says the kind of stuff you expect a director to say about the scale of Marvel movie productions and film as a collaborative art form, but seems uneasy in the role. "At the end of the day, it's like an independent movie about this guy's journey," he says, unconvincingly. Finally, "Designing Venom" (6 mins.) considers the character design, with co-writer Jeff Pinkner acknowledging the absence in the film version of the spider emblem seen on Venom's chest in the comic books. (It's too bad that comic-book creators Todd McFarlane and/or David Michelinie appear not to have been invited to the party.) As a weird coda, one last featurette called "Symbiote Secrets" (3 mins.) is presented in a completely different style, as sarcastic voiceover that sounds like it was recorded from AM radio explains some blink-and-you'll-miss-'em comic-book-derived references planted in the film. (In case you're really out of it, this guy also points out the Stan Lee cameo.) If that's not enough trivia, you can turn on "Venom Mode" during the movie proper, enabling a sparsely-populated set of trivia pop-ups that mix factoids from the film's production notes with bits of lore about the symbiotes themselves. I mean, if you're gonna watch Venom again, sure, turn 'em on.
Eight "select scenes" (14 mins.), mostly action scenes featuring human characters in symbiote encounters rather than full-on CG extravaganzas, are presented in windows alongside the original storyboards and animatics to show how various styles of pre-vis helped define the final sequences as shot and, eventually, edited into the film. A little of this goes a long way for me, but it does offer legitimate insight into the process. Three deleted scenes are included as well. The one in which Eddie takes a cab ride (1:18) actually clarifies the film's take on his character. Another, in which Venom is angered by a car alarm as a little boy watches, awe-struck (0:30), is a metaphor for this film finding its audience and thus a legit delight and probably shouldn't have been deleted. There's also an "extended" version (3 mins.) of the post-credits scene introducing someone named Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson)--and, I'm sorry, I couldn't tell you what was different about this version of the scene if you put a gun to my head. The second post-credits scene, an excerpt from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, is viewable in context or on its own on both the BD and UHD discs. The UHD BD additionally has an autoplay trailer for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (3 mins.) and, boy, is that a hard act for Venom to follow, especially in HDR.
For the sake of completeness: Two music videos are on board the Blu-ray, for Eminem's "Venom" (5 mins.) and Post Malone and Swae Lee's "Sunflower" (3 mins.), along with trailers for The Girl in the Spider's Web, Searching, The Front Runner, and Alpha.
112 minutes; PG-13; UHD: 2.40:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; BD: 2.40:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core) (UHD only), English 5.1 DTS-HD MA (BD only), English DVS 5.1, French 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DVS 5.1 (BD only), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-66 (UHD) + BD-50; Region-free; Sony