The trailer for this film was not encouraging: Tom Hardy becoming host to a slimy parasitic alien of fangs and giant tongue, with blank membrane eyes. The hero turned into unsettling CGI nightmare: is this really what I wanted for my hero? After the event, I can say that the film is better than the trailer, and progressively has its giant, slimy tongue in its cheek. Yet it also leaves a prescient opening behind, the film becoming host to the parasite of bland superhero formula.
I did appreciate the opening premise. The main story is located in iconic San Francisco, where an Elon Musk-style archetype wants to use his Silicon Valley wealth and power not to solve the city's crisis of homelessness, but to make things scarily worse. It's a theme of relevance to San Francisco and increasingly the West: where the drive towards minimal direct taxation replaces democracy with male middle-age demagoguery, be it in the form of Bill Gates or the aforementioned Musk, who focus their untaxed billions on 'solutions' to their every whim. Sticking with this reality for a moment, I've heard the homelessness in San Francisco – Camelot of the dotcom billionaire generation – has reached such unsettling proportions that no one goes there who doesn't report back on the depressing sight of homeless thousands roaming the streets, uncared for, abandoned. Venom briefly begins with this scenario; indeed, the plot includes homeless people going missing, as the Silicon Valley demagogue looks for human hosts for his experiments. The potential to turn this into gothic satire is acute, with echoes of tales of nineteenth-century Body Snatchers in old Edinburgh town. But Venom leaves this social commentary behind halfway through, to focus on the story/character development that never really happens.
But let's get the story/character analysis out of the way anyway: the plot involves investigative report Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy), sacrificing his relationship with his fiancé (played by Michelle Williams) to dig dirt on the aforementioned Silicon Valley demagogue (played by Riz Ahmed). The actual dirt-digging goes wrong, leaving Brock contaminated with a parasitic lifeform, a 'symbiote' that needs a suitable human host to survive. Much has been made of the film's comedic silliness as Brock and the parasite develop an internal dialogue. More surreal is Williams's performance as the fiancé. The script reduces her to alien-levels of emotionless surface value, her reactions to events failing to capture any character consistency, like a cipher for the plot. I felt in some ways her character was the more weirdly fascinating alien character, albeit unintended. As for resolutions, we get the Marvel-ous climax of fist-fight and the good-guy-triumphs, and that's no bad thing since Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams are immensely likeable, even when their acting appears corrupted by the malign force of the seemingly committee-driven final quarter.
Ultimately, then, I enjoyed Venom for its gorgeous location and the residue of an interesting premise. The cast is charismatic, and the alien monster isn't as unsettling as it could have been, edging away from the initial evocation of Alien (1979) and Life (2017) to Loony Tunes. If there's a sequel I will probably watch it, and if there isn't, I can always go to San Francisco, to the twisted playground of the all-powerful super-rich, and experience the real thing.