Venom, the character, is a reptilian alien “symbiote” whose touch turns ordinary people into super-powered monsters.
“Venom,” the movie, is a reptilian Marvel mishmash whose touch saps the life force of almost everyone in it.
Maybe it’s a matter of expectations. If the new rock-em-sock-em comic-book extravaganza had featured a B-level star — I don’t know, Jason Statham or Gerard Butler — it might be easier to get into its wobbly spirit of enthusiastic junk. But because “Venom” features the great British changeling Tom Hardy and our reigning indie queen of hearts, Michelle Williams, it’s just pretty depressing.
Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco investigative reporter who’s supposed to be raffish and just comes off as loutish and dull. There, I said it: Tom Hardy has managed to be dull, and whether the responsibility for his charisma-ectomy goes to the listless script or his own actorly choices, I can’t say.
The same goes for Williams, who seems so rotely uninspired as Eddie’s once and (maybe) future girlfriend, Anne Weying, that I thought at first I was watching a Michelle Williams replicant. Eddie loses Anne, his job, and everything else after he tries exposing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a soulless super-scientist with dreams of space travel and human conquest. Basically, he’s Elon Musk with better social graces and slightly worse megalomania.
Ahmed, who’s very talented, has the distinction of playing the best person in a very good movie opening in the Boston area today (“The Sisters Brothers,” at the Boston Common and Kendall) and the very worst person in a pretty bad movie (this one).
One of Drake’s space probes bring back a gaggle of symbiotes, which resemble a sentient British pudding crossed with Silly Putty and which need to absorb themselves into human hosts if they are to survive. Through a lot of heavy plot lifting, Eddie ends up backpacking a symbiote named Venom that allows him to shoot out sticky-icky tentacles, scale skyscrapers, and occasionally transform himself into a hulking S&M man-beast with severe orthodontic issues.
At which point, “Venom” at last becomes sort of fun. Venom “speaks” to Eddie in a guttural bark not far removed from the carnivorous plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the inner banter between host and host-ee, while not reaching Nick and Nora Charles levels of wit, are reasonably amusing.
The action sequences, by contrast, are over-edited poxes upon the eyeballs. The chief problem with “Venom” is that it never settles on a tone. Is it comedy? Horror? Romance? Drama? Why not try all of them at once? Not with this dialogue and not with Ruben Fleischer’s busy, unfocused direction. The “Venom” effect applies to Fleischer, too, since he once made a dandy little zombie comedy (“Zombieland,” 2009) but seems to have mislaid his personal touch here.
(Even more curious is the case of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot both this and the new “A Star is Born.” How one man can make one of the seasons’s best-looking movies and one of its dingiest is a question for the ages.)
“Venom” has its bizarre pleasures, including Eddie’s assault on a pricey restaurant during the early stages of his possession; the sight of Tom Hardy sitting in a lobster tank eating a live crustacean is one you will not soon forget. And the old Jekyll-and-Hyde push-pull between civilized man and his inner animal remains intermittently entertaining and, every so often, quite telling. Yelps Eddie during one more high-speed chase through the hills of San Francisco. “Looks like a dead end!” “Not for us,” comes the growling reply in his head.
Well, actually, it is.
NOTE: If you have the patience to wait through an eternity of credits, you’ll be treated to a daft animated short involving Spider-Man, the web-slinging superhero in whose pages the character of Venom originally appeared, during the 1980s. What the short has to do with anything, including all that Marvel Cinematic Universe nonsense, eludes me, but it’s a lot more interesting than the movie that precedes it.
Directed by Ruben Fleischer. Written by Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel, and Will Beall, based on the Marvel comics by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate. At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 112 minutes. R (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.