As life returns to almost normal again – despite the best efforts of young people – it’s time to switch off Covideodrome and once again take a trip to the movies for Orange Thursday.
This week, we’re starting with one very obvious choice: literally the only big movie released in the past couple of weeks – Tenet (2020).
But what to choose for movie two? I could regale you with reviews of Lovely Wife’s and my usual summer holiday viewing: Top Gun (1986) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). But no.
Instead, let’s go with Venom (2018), a comic-book movie I somehow inexplicably missed at the cinema when it was released, but which is now free on Netflix.
See you after the facemask-adorned ads and the trailers.
A secret agent known only as the Protagonist embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.
I think Christopher Nolan is probably my favourite director at the moment. While I think only Inception (2010) numbers among my favourite movies – it might even be my favourite movie – the likes of Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006) and Batman Begins (2005) are ones that I do happily rewatch from time to time, and there’s a whole bunch of other movies, such as Interstellar (2014) that I admire, even if I don’t love them.
I also think Tenet (2020) is going to fall in the latter camp, rather than the former camp in future. I came out of it thinking that while it was impeccably made and an object of beauty in many regards, it left me cold and I spent more time thinking about its premise than I did about the story and its characters.
Spy versus Spy
The movie is a combination of sci-fi and spy thriller, with some unnamed future generation having discovered a technology capable of ‘inverting’ objects – that is reversing the direction of entropy for that object. This isn’t time travel, more time reversal, with objects and people continuing to live one day at a time, just with time going in the opposite direction to everything else.
However, that future generation has some interesting plans for the current inhabitants of Earth and are not just in communication with Russian oligarch Satoy (Kenneth Branagh) but sending him future tech, including inverted weaponry. And there’s something they’d like him to do in exchange, something that former CIA agent John David Washington is going to have to stop with the help of fellow spy Robert Pattinson.
Much like the similar Red Dwarf episode Backwards, when you really think about it, not a lot of that makes sense. It almost does, and Nolan does include ideas that suggest he’s been thinking about it a lot, such as inverted people having to bring their own oxygen with them when not inside inverted objects, since they can’t breath normal air properly. Yet if an inverted boat seems to be going backwards, why does the sea go backwards, too?
It’s questions like this I’ve been musing on for the past couple of weeks, rather than the story itself, since that’s really where the main interest is. Although the film’s palindromic title hints at a reversible story structure, one to mirror Memento‘s, it doesn’t quite do that – or even try to do that – although things that aren’t clear in the first half become clearer in reverse in the second half.
Instead, the first half is more or less The Night Manager, with Washington the Hiddleston to Branagh’s Laurie. Elizabeth Debicki (The Kettering Incident) even plays a virtually identical, virtually depthless, damsel in distress, caring mother role – which given she’s more or less the only woman in the entire movie is a real let down.
It’s only when the second half reverses the action that the story shows any real sign of trying to engage its audience with something human – and that might also rival Inception. It doesn’t achieve that, although the movie’s triumphant set-piece (not the much vaunted airline crash) – in which (spoiler alert) two armies attack the same target, one going backwards in time, one going forwards – does come close.
Despite the more mathematical, rather than emotional interest provided by the movie, Tenet‘s use of its central conceits does result in some marvellous ideas and some eye-catching and unique cinematic moments. It may be the first big movie of note to hit the cinemas in months – but it’s also a movie that begs you to watch it in the cinema, as it’s only there that you’ll fully appreciate it. Whether it’s car crashes in reverse or simply the Amalfi coastline writ large, Nolan is a superb, visual director who can rival Kubrick on his best days.
If you love or even merely like Nolan’s previous work, you’ll certainly like Tenet. You may even love it, if you can suspend your disbelief – and the analytical hemisphere of your brain – during the movie’s run. But the movie suffers from many similar flaws as its predecessors while having fewer of their redeeming features.
But you absolutely should watch it all the same.
Available on Netflix
While trying to take down Carlton, the CEO of Life Foundation, Eddie, a journalist, investigates experiments of human trials. Unwittingly, he gets merged with a symbiotic alien with lethal abilities.
Although Spider-man 3 ain’t the worst movie ever made, it did more or less kill off the Tobey Maguire franchise – and its ‘popular in the comics, unpopular at the movies’ central villain, Venom, was largely seen to be to blame, particularly by old-school Spider-fans who had no truck with the 80s upstart.
Yet as director Sam Raimi learnt at the time, for a whole generation of newbs, Venom – and the rest of the alien ‘symbiotes’ that now percolate the Marvel comics world – are top tier selling points and have their own fans, too, including Tom Hardy, it turns out.
Hence Venom (2018).
Now, I went into this expecting very little, having heard nothing but bad things about it. “A muddled mess”, “Tonally all over the place” and other criticisms were the order of the day.
And it’s fair to say that Venom ain’t a great movie with a strong plot. Symbiotic aliens come to Earth on a spaceship sent up by billionaire Riz Ahmed. They look for ‘perfect hosts’ who they can bond with so they can stay alive – and then eat everyone. One of them bonds with down-on-his-luck former journalist Tom Hardy. And together, they try to save the planet while coming to a mutual agreement over who gets control of his body and when.
But plot isn’t where this is at. Because it’s best to think of Venom more as a comedy than a drama.
Pile of bodies, pile of heads
The story does seem to go through the usual beats, with Hardy being down on his luck after doing all those major exposés that no one does on TV more except if it’s TV in a movie. Then he loses girlfriend Michelle Williams. Then he loses his soul. And then he meets Venom.
Meanwhile, Riz Ahmed is conducting medical trials in a way that suggests he’s never heard of double-blinding, let alone the 2002 CIOMS ethical guidelines for biomedical research involving human subjects.
But after initially going through the usual motions for superhero origin stories, things pick up once Hardy gets bonded with the alien in question. A lot of that is down to Hardy’s frenetic, comedic performance, but the movie itself does do some neat twists on the usual formulae.
Williams isn’t quite what you think she’s going to be and does more than you’d suspect, too. Venom himself/itself (voiced by Hardy) is actually a pretty amusing character – and definitely not a good guy – with a good line in dialogue:
Venom: Outstanding. Now, let’s bite all their heads off, and pile them up in the corner.
Eddie Brock: Why would we do that?
Venom: Pile of bodies, pile of heads.
Frequent jokes about parasites also go down well.
Laugh, damn it!
There’s very little that’s high-quality about Venom. You’d never confuse any part of it with one of Christopher Nolan’s comic book movies, for starters. But it’s not trying to be. Rather, it’s trying to be an entertaining, silly, slightly crude, slightly smart piece of comic book that’s different from the usual Marvel adaptations.
Go into it expecting not a work of art, but a buddy-buddy movie between a ravenous alien and a gurning Tom Hardy and you’ll not be disappointed.