Title: Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Director: Andy Serkis
Starring: Tom Hardy, Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, Michelle Williams, Stephen Graham, Reid Scott, Peggy Lu
There is nothing in Venom: Let There Be Carnage to suggest anything approaching the same level of humanity with which director Andy Serkis has imbued any number of performance-capture and CGI-augmented characters he has portrayed as an actor. Eschewing that experience — hiring Serkis to helm a movie which could have utilized motion-capture but instead wraps its arms around CGI excess — seems on the surface like an exercise in perversity, and even more so once one has actually submitted to this garish, clamorous mess. A gear-grinding misfire whose notoriety will lay only in being the most tentacled movie of the year, Let There Be Carnage is a dispiriting waste of its screen talent.
Hardy reprises his role from 2018’s comic book adaptation (a Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent offering from Sony Pictures which unfolds in the same realm as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man movies) as Eddie Brock, an ambitious San Francisco investigative reporter. The rub is that he also shares his body with Venom, a slithery, oil-black, fanged, and perpetually angry extraterrestrial parasite known as a symbiote, which bond to their host and give them superhuman abilities, but at a significant cost. Venom, you see, wants to always eat people (specifically, their brains), but Brock attempts to limit him to chickens and chocolate, given the social parameters of his world and his own moral compass.
The film opens, in a desperate attempt to establish some type of “motivation” for its antagonists, at a reform school in 1996, where the young versions of Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) and Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) are ripped apart — a sequence rendered ridiculous by hammy overacting and the decision to have Harrelson needlessly voice the adolescent character. This moment sets the bar for Venom: Let There Be Carnage fairly low, but fear not, we have 90-plus more minutes to go.
Frances is also known as Shriek… because, well, she emits ear-damaging shrieks. She does this to a young police officer the evening she’s being taken away to the ominously named Ravencroft Institute, and when we jump to the present day, wouldn’t you know it, that officer is now Detective Mulligan (Stephen Graham), who seems to exist only to try to prod Brock to find the remains of Kasady’s murder victims — which we as an audience don’t care about at all, having never met or been told anything about any of those people.
Yes, Kasady is now in prison, a brutal serial killer. And he makes a deal with Brock to tell his life story in exchange for the latter publishing a message to be seen by his old, institutionalized love, Frances. Brock complies, and Kasady’s death sentence is seemingly expedited after he reveals the location of more bodies. During one last visit, Venom responds violently to Kasady’s taunts, and Kasady bites Brock/Venom, ingesting some of the alien symbiote. “Carnage” is thus born, and Kasady sets out to reunite with Frances/Shriek — a digression that Carnage indulges, before his desired destruction of Venom. At the same time, Venom leaves Brock, and goes host-hopping across the city. When the scale of Carnage’s potential destruction becomes clear, Brock enlists the assistance of his ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) to track down Venom so that he might reintegrate with him, and do battle with Kasady/Carnage.
Cinematographer Robert Richardson opens up the color palette on the movie, and leans into more open frames, getting away from quite the same reliance on handheld camerawork that undergirded the first film. But there’s no getting around the fact that this effort is an unsophisticated, lowest-common-denominator cash grab. The settings feel small, and often cramped (Let There Be Carnage is “only” budgeted at around $110 million), which wouldn’t matter so much if the special effects weren’t so brawny, wildly excessive, and also utterly indistinct and cheap-looking. Apparently using performance-capture only in the earliest planning stages, Serkis manages to distinguish the film’s two creatures through dominant colors (black and red), but otherwise deliver a finale whose thrashing overindulgence feels less like an actual narrative beat and more like a gaudy effects company sizzle reel.
Much will likely be made of how Let There Be Carnage is a superhero action-comedy, with an emphasis on that latter element, and critics not responding to the movie somehow either don’t grasp that, or don’t have a sense of humor. Neither is true. Venom could be malicious and still funny, but the over-dialed vocal performance (growling, and hyperactive) loses about one-third of its rejoinders in bass-y reverb, and undercuts a lot of the instinctive, almost hormonal acting out of the character.
The human performances are hardly any better. Harrelson, an actor of considerable wily charisma, yields from almost right out of the gate to the lack of dimensionality in the script, phoning in a crazy-eyed, clench-jawed turn that feels cobbled together from a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of Natural Born Killers role crossed with other, far more interesting past performances. Smartly aiming to preserve dignity, Williams plays things simple and straight, opting to showcase an entirely sexless lingering devotion to Brock which the movie then obliges her new fiancé, Dan (Reid Scott), to dumbly submit to. Hardy, meanwhile, is a full-tilt actor — a performer who commits in a very physical way to every role, regardless of what genre. And he throws himself into his character again here, giving up his body in a couple violent slapstick sequences. The problem is that there is simply not enough meat on the bone, narratively speaking, to give Let There Be Carnage two passably interesting scenes in a row, let alone enough for a full movie.
The most successful narrative element — which plays only fitfully — is the break-up “bromance” between Venom and Brock, who despite their exasperation with one another, eventually come to embrace an uneasy truce, and recognize a need for one another. There’s a quick third act nod made to some father-son conflict, with Carnage being spawned from Venom, if you will, and this could be interesting. But it’s quickly ignored, and the rest of the screenplay (on which Hardy takes a story credit) offers up only uninspired plotting, laid-track conflict, and wholly expected resolutions. Spider-Man and MCU fans will want to dissect the ramifications of the obligatory two credits sequences, it’s true, but Let There Be Carnage evokes only one dominant thought as it unspools: let this be over.
Written by: Brent Simon