It’s common knowledge among critics that there’s often a direct and depressingly predictable correlation between a movie’s press screening and the lifting of the review embargo date. The red-flag-triggering equation usually means that the longer a studio waits and the more stringent they are about 11th-hour embargoes, the bigger a chance there is that they’ve got a stinker on their hands and don’t want it to be publicised. Granted, sometimes lifting the embargo as close to the international release date as possible is done to avoid leakage of any spoiler-sensitive material; but safe to say that the main spoiler Sony were trying to keep under wraps with Venom is that it’s a complete dud. Some won’t be surprised by this news, considering how the screenwriters’ room includes the minds behind The Dark Tower, The 5th Wave and Fifty Shades of Grey. But when taking into account how eager Sony were to give this iconic character a solo film in order to waft away the stench of our first encounter with journalist-turned-symbiote-host Eddie Brock in Sam Raimi‘s ill-fated Spider-Man 3, it’s almost hilarious how spectacularly they’ve shot themselves in the foot by not hiring better writers. Doubly galling is the fact that Venom boasts one of the most enviable casts of any recent comic book film, with Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed and, of course, Tom Hardy as Brock. They all crumble under the weight of an uninspired screenplay that’s as embarrassing as some of the ropey and dated-looking special effects, especially the Abyss-reminiscent moments when the symbiote has face-to-face chinwags with its host.

The chief shortcoming, however, is the film’s tone. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) kicks off proceedings with some effective horror inflections: a moody crash-landing site sets things up nicely, some sinister medical trials using homeless people as unsuspecting test subjects is appropriately unpleasant, and our voice-hearing protagonist noticeably sweats buckets and vomits when infected by the symbiote. These promisingly murky elements end up clashing with the cartoony vibe that follows, as well as the excruciatingly poor dialogue and attempts at humour. It’s this tonal clunkiness that makes it hard to understand why Sony made the baffling miscalculation of not aiming for an R-rating: why bother making an adaptation of a famously violent character if you’re not willing to commit to a radical tone and take some risks? To be fair, some wanton head-chomping does occur, but lamely off-screen, and what could have been the first deliriously disturbing super(anti)hero movie to boast Cronenbergian body horror and a solid helping of pitch-black comedy to match its protagonist’s viscously creepy and creosote black nature is instead a tame waste of time, designed purely for box-office intake. By the time it limps to the finish line with a CGI orgy that you’ve seen a thousand times before (and a post-credits scene that very optimistically sets-up a sequel), your heart will go out to the wasted cast who deserved so much better. “Hey, I’m sorry about Venom”, one character states towards the end of the film, unknowingly becoming a mouthpiece for the film’s creators. And so they should be.

Venom | Directed by Ruben Fleischer (US, 2018) with Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed. Starts October 3.

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