It’s Saturday afternoon in my rural, central-Albertan hometown — Thanksgiving weekend, 2018, to be precise. Autumn is in full swing. The foliage has transitioned to a dazzling array of orange and yellow hues, the fires that had been ignited in the preceding week by up-and-coming arsonists have finally been quelled, and our local millennial population is collectively intaking a potent narcotic compound known as ‘pumpkin spice’ through every orifice in their bodies. How does one spend such a picturesque afternoon, you ask?
Why, at our Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies, of course!
Myself and my band of loyal chums peruse the Symposium’s selection beforehand to determine a film that best suits our cinematic appetites. Hell Fest? Too violent! A Star is Born? Not violent enough! But Venom? A new superhero film starring Tom Hardy that’s currently clocking in at 30% on Rotten Tomatoes? As Goldilocks said, that’s just right!
With our selection locked in unanimously, we step into the Symposium just minutes before the 12:45 matinee showing full of hope and vigour. Having successfully navigated our 2003 Pontiac Sunfire around the crater-like potholes that pepper the treacherous expanse of gravel that somebody deemed a parking lot, we’re feeling confident that fortune has favoured our excursion and will further bless us with optimal seating.
We approach the counter to pay for our tickets in the uncongested Symposium. “Six dollars each,” says our ticket master with all the authority and diction of The Simpsons’ Squeaky-Voice Teen character after a recent lobotomy. I pay for my ticket and thank every deity in every pantheon I can name that our showing is not in 3D. Good fortune, indeed!
With our passage paid for, we cross the foyer to our designated theater, arm-in-arm with one another — not out of some saccharine sense of comradery, mind, but for our mutual protection. There’s safety in numbers, as grandma used to say — before she got mauled by coyotes on the way home from the liquor store back in ‘98. Trampled popcorn kernels and discarded candy wrappers litter our path while stains from both carbonated drinks and bodily secretions blotch the walls. An inebriated vagrant is being escorted from the premises for causing a commotion during the Smallfoot screening — sorry, that’s not quite politically correct, is it? I’ll rephrase — a vagrant experiencing inebriation is being escorted from the premises for causing a commotion during the Smallfoot screening. Yes, that’s better.
We enter the Symposium’s inner sanctum – Theater 1, which is perhaps a quarter full. The reek of fresh urine, burnt butter, and stale marijuana clings to the air like an emaciated child to its mother’s breast. Several drunkards rove the aisles blindly, daring anybody who happens to look in their general direction to challenge their supremacy of this anthill. One corpulent theatergoer with a keg-sized soda drum and a bathtub-sized popcorn basin gazes into the blank screen with unbroken concentration — he must be the kingpin to whom the roving drunkards swear fealty, I think, because he dominates an entire row unchallenged.
We keep our heads low, strategically choosing seats in close proximity to the exit. If there’s one thing I’m personally thankful for this fine weekend, it’s having been conditioned by lengthy residency of one of the most dangerous municipalities in Canada to subconsciously scope a viable escape.
We settle in. I myself am feeling confident that I’m in for at least a Decent 6 on the Patented Snooty Ratings Grid. Off course, I’ve heard the slough of negative reviews that have been hurled at Venom since its release, but I’ve also become a veteran of the theatrical experience, having survived both Man of Steel and 2014’s Godzilla in this very Symposium — in this very theater! Moreover, I’ve already endured both Fallen Kingdom and The Predator this year alone and emerged unscathed. What more can mere movies do to me that has not already been done?
Our screening at last begins. A hush falls over those in attendance — or rather, the inane chatter diminishes ever so slightly. Several silhouettes still lurch obliviously before the screen like zombies looking for their wallets, their footfalls making distinct thik thik thik sounds on the sticky floor. The Dolby “All Around You” surround sound advert isn’t quite so impressive when emanating from a single speaker mounted in the top left-hand corner of the room, I note, and would probably be more accurate if it instead said “Way Up Here, Idiot.” The previews pass without incident, I nestle deeper into my seat, and then I see the Sony Studios logo. I’m struck by a sudden, inexplicable sinking feeling that I can’t quite place, but somewhere deep in my psyche Gob Bluth’s ethereal voice echoes “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
We open on a mysterious spacecraft as it crashes into a lush forest and releases a hostile extraterrestrial creature to prey upon an unsuspecting world. I momentarily think that the projectionist made a boo-boo and accidentally started screening The Predator, but this is proved to be erroneous when the first alien symbiote makes its debut. A bold venture, to be sure, introducing your titular monster right out of the gate and leaving little else to be unveiled with the plot. I do hope I’m able to keep up with all the action that is surely to follow, riveting as it will most certainly be!
I’m still hopeful for that Decent 6 as we’re introduced to Tom Hardy’s character, a schlubby loser named Eddie Brock, who is still in bed despite the sun being at its zenith. I immediately feel a connection with this unshaven, bedraggled sun-hater — a connection that is abruptly dashed with the reveal of his beautiful, smart, and successful girlfriend. She awakens him playfully and tells him to get on with his day, whereupon the two proceed to banter about absolutely nothing of consequence. This scene is so bland, flat, and uninspired that my mind begins to wander. It occurs to me that this scene might be a shot-for-shot remake of Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton’s introduction in the first Children of the Corn, which also establishes its sorry excuse for a protagonist as he is being eagerly awakened by a woman who’s far too good for him. When your set-up makes me long for the subtle intricacies of a maligned, low-budget horror movie from 1984, you know you should have given your script that second draft.
The first fifteen minutes pass. I begin to grow weary of the disheveled drunkard looming in front of our screen, babbling incoherently and clearly suffering from some sort of motor impairment. I consider calling for an usher, when it hits me that this is just Tom Hardy giving his definition of a performance. He slurs his words, appears feverish, and slips in an out of a speech impediment. I ask myself what could have possibly come over Mr. Hardy — one of the most versatile, dynamic actors in the business — to compel him to deliver a performance so off-kilter, but I concede that it could have worked had Eddie Brock been remotely likable or interesting as a hero.
Something is gravely wrong with this production that I can’t quite put my finger on — until we check in with the first escaped symbiote as it bites the head off an innocent shopkeeper without spilling a drop of blood. I realize that this movie is not rated R as I originally believed — it’s PG-13, otherwise known as a box office warning label for poison. I sink deeper into my seat and wonder when the single f-word permitted by the MPAA will make its obligatory appearance.
When the villain of this affair, an evil genius who brought the symbiotes back from space, begins conducting twisted experiments on homeless people and causally killing them in full view of his staff with little thought for security or subterfuge, I try to identify which one of his interns will leak the atrocities he’s committing to the press. After a jarring six-month time jump, one morally-upright scientist finally does the right thing by smuggling Eddie Brock into the laboratory to document the horror for himself. Why she couldn’t just do this herself is unknown to me, but this sequence does lead to Eddie Brock becoming infected with the Venom symbiote and delivering unto us the promise of the premise. I sigh and rub my forehead, because I’m not sure what’s happening anymore or why. Eddie Brock kills people and then freaks out about it until the next scene where he kills more people. There is a motorcycle chase that leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. The bad guys can apparently shoot up an entire street without any law enforcement noticing. Oh movie, if you’re trying to impress me, you’ll have to show me something that I don’t see every day on my commute to work!
Once Venom starts cracking wise like one of the Ninja Turtles, I wonder aloud if Venom is indeed supposed to be funny — when he’s not biting people’s heads off bloodlessly, I mean. Perhaps I would know if I were more familiar with the source material. I rue having spent so little of my formative years reading Spider-Man comic books, foolish child that I was! Why did I waste those precious educational years reading the rubbish of Chaucer and Milton, Dickens and Orwell, when I could have immersed myself in comic books? I suppose it’s my own fault that I’m failing to connect with this movie like everyone else in the theater.
Time begins to twist and blur, with each scene bleeding into the next like spilled ink across father’s oak desk. My attention is fixed in place solely by how sloppy and poorly arranged this movie is from start to finish. I wonder which brand of weedwhacker the editing staff used to assemble the footage — I might recommend they replace the line trimmer, because Tom Hardy’s head tends to change angles between cuts and most scenes feel like they were snipped about ten seconds prematurely. I also find myself wishing for my trusty flask to make a drinking game out of how many times the same establishing shot of the villain’s evil lair in the mountains overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge is shown (at least five). Whenever Venom morphs into view, I wonder if the same team that developed the recent Spider-Man game for the PS4 lent their services to rendering the CGI and, if so, whether or not they feel bad about it. The time soon comes when I quit groaning at the dialogue, which is so blunt and on the nose that I suspect the actors mistakenly read the scene descriptions instead of their actual lines. Because every character has thus far failed to behave like real people would in their situation, I surreptitiously check my phone to see if Tommy Wiseau earned a writing credit. Oh, what I would give to be viewing a Decent 6!
All these observations spin through my mind in a distorted web of thoughts that are as ugly and formless as this movie — or even Venom himself. The movie gradually fades from my focus and my attention becomes diverted by the peals of laughter rising around me. I look around the theater in burgeoning horror. The drunkards are falling over one another despite having sobered up during the first act and the kingpin is sloshing gallons of soda over himself as glee ripples across his body like seismic waves over Jell-O. What is going on? How can no one else see that this isn’t entertainment — it’s mindless drivel, devoid of substance or cohesion! I want to shout at them like Kevin McCarthy at a doomed populace in Invasion of the Body Snatchers — but the staff has warned me that I’ll be barred for life if I start doing that again.
It finally dawns on me — this movie, like the character from which it derives its name, is itself an evil symbiotic entity. A formless, shapeless, ugly succubus that depends on living hosts for survival. Theatergoers like us are its hosts — without us, movies like this cannot survive, but the more of ourselves we give over to the parasite the more it hollows us out and decays us from within. My fellow Symposium patrons have already become Venom’s hosts and will carry their infection out into an unsuspecting populace. Though the critics have broadcast their warnings, positive word of mouth amongst average moviegoers will make this movie a success, ensuring that the box office sees its coveted return. The cycle will continue as it has for decades and we as a society will spiral further into oblivion. I sink deeper into my seat, suppress a shiver, and wonder if it’s not too late to sneak into A Star is Born.
The third act passes in a violent cascade of mindless action. I blink, yawn, and discover that the movie ended. Before I can reorient myself we are treated to a post-credits scene in which Woody Harrelson sits in a prison cell wearing a Ronald McDonald wig. One of my more versed chums informs me that Harrelson is being teased as another villainous symbiote for the inevitable sequel. There are numerous symbiotes in the Marvel Universe, I learn, one of whom actually bonds with a noble police officer who must contend with the evil entity inhabiting his body while still struggling to uphold the law. I can’t help but think that that would have made a far more compelling film that whatever I just sat through.
I blink blearily as we step into the mid-afternoon sun, my visit to the decadent and depraved Symposium having finally come to an end. The pock-marked parking lot is empty, save for our lonely Sunfire and a truck filled with middle-aged deviants who pass an open bottle of wine amongst themselves before peeling away into traffic. Perhaps I’m wrong — perhaps we don’t need mindless Hollywood garbage or even an evil alien symbiote to drag us into the gutter. Maybe we’re already there.
Whatever the case, this movie was terrible.