Thursday, September 30, 2021

Venom: Let There be Carnage needed to let there be more fun


The biggest advantage Venom: Let There Be Carnage has over its predecessor is that it knows what people liked about the very first Venom. Whereas the first film was an erratic mess that felt like five movies sewed into one, Let There Be Carnage is firmly rooted in milking the odd couple dynamic between Venom and Carnage for all its worth. This rapport yields some chuckles, all of them when serious statements are juxtaposed against the sight of a gigantic goo-alien. Venom mournfully whispering “I wish you were here to see me, Eddie" after giving a triumphant speech, that is fun.

Unfortunately, those moments are few and far in between in Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The majority of the film is hyperactively cramming so much comedy and mayhem into its runtime, it all becomes more exhausting than fun. There’s ambitious filmmaking and then there’s a movie that cannot justify treating its string of half-baked gags as an episodic plot structure. 

Eddie Brock and Venom (Tom Hardy) are having a rough go of things. They share the same body, but their ambitions couldn’t be more different. Brock wants to live a normal life, Venom wants to snack on the heads of bad guys. Their conflicting goals eventually result in the duo going their separate ways just as serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) gets an alien Symbiote of his own. Now armed with the power of the otherworldly beast Carnage, Kassidy begins a rampage and pursuit of longtime girlfriend Shriek (Naomie Harris) that only Venom could stop.

Put simply, the ramshackle nature of Let There Be Carnage would be easily forgiven if the movie was humorous or fun. It is neither of those things. The comedy falls so flat that it seems like the post-production process was largely dedicated to injecting extra jokes uttered by characters just off-screen. Yes, just like the jokes described by Patton Oswalt in that one stand-up comedy sketch. Someone like Woody Harrelson will deliver the line “who said romance is dead?” in voiceover, all in the pursuit of a laugh that never comes from the audience. There’s a sense of desperation to Let There Be Carnage’s yuks, not freewheeling amusement.

The proclivity towards just overwhelming the audience extends to the action scenes. Typically, director Andy Serkis opts to forego exciting gruesome kills or contained intimate skirmishes in favor of just dumping tons of CG onto the screen and hoping something sticks. Carnage’s big scenes, like his prison escape set-piece, are just a cacophony of noise and incoherent imagery. The editing works overtime to avoid showing anything that could earn the movie an R-eating while the Marco Beltrami score lathers on piercing screeches of radio static for reasons that I will never understand. The action scenes in Venom: Let There Be Carnage are a nightmare for all the wrong reasons. 

It’s also strange that the movie obviously wants to play on people’s fondness for the Eddie/Venom banter from the first movie but then separates the duo for almost all of the second act. Venom has some amusing moments going out on his own to a music festival but neither character works like gangbusters as a solo act. Plus, none of their antics are funny enough to make this stretch of the plot feel like it’s anything but killing time until everyone has to come together to fight Cletus Kassidy/Carnage. A movie like Venom: Let There Be Carnage leaning hard on wacky comedy shouldn't also be so reliant on formulaic elements you can see coming a mile away. Venom: Let There Be Carnage wants to run wild, but it ends up just running mild.

Similarly predictable details drag down the rest of the proceedings, like reducing Michelle Williams’ Ann Weyeng to being a damsel-in-distress for the climax. Shriek getting turned on by Kassidy going into his Carnage form is a neat detail, but that’s her only moment of liveliness as a character. Otherwise, she’s a generic foe that could’ve been airlifted in from any random superhero movie. All the familiar details weigh down the performers, who are actually the best part of the proceedings (other than Serkis's wise decision to keep this thing running at just 90 minutes). 

The cast is game for all this lighthearted nonsense, but Venom: Let there Be Carnage is too adherent to the demands of traditional blockbuster filmmaking to let their commitment carry the day. Do we need to run off to the next explosion-laden set-piece nobody will care about an hour after the movie ends? Why not just make a cheaper Venom film that relies more heavily on weirdo humor and the actors? Woody Harrelson has shown countless times that he can captivate just by acting eccentric on the screen, why have him forfeit so much of his screentime to a fully CG Carnage? At least what flashes of dedicated silliness the actors do get to express proves. Naomie Harris, for instance, seems to be having a blast just playing a Saturday morning cartoon villain that wandered into the real world while Stephen Graham amusingly commits to playing every TV cop ever as Detective Mulligan. Above all else in the cast, seeing Michelle Williams cooing about Venom being “sexy” and “hot” is a more unbelievable sight than anything buckets of CGI could conjure up. 

When Venom: Let There Be Carnage embraces those committed performances and flourishes of queerness, it actually suggests a fun and campy movie. But obligations to the most generic kind of action blockbuster keeps tripping the feature up. Just as Eddie Brock and Venom are constantly dueling, so too is Venom: Let There Be Carnage at war with itself. There's an inspired burst of unabashedly weird filmmaking in here just dying to get out. Unfortunately, the most uninspired elements end up dominating the piece. Venom’s utterance of “I’m out of the Eddie closet!” at a rave provides a rare glimpse at the superior movie Venom: Let There Be Carnage could have been.

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