In truth my hopes were never high for another live-action Death Note adaptation because I’ve never been a fan of neither the anime series or the original Japanese features. The fact Netflix was releasing a live-action film in English after how this year’s Ghost in the Shell had turned out to be sounded far less appealing to me given as Netflix’s original feature films have rarely ever been great ones at that, and I grew even more cautious upon the notion that Adam Wingard was set to direct after how bad his Blair Witch sequel had turned out to be. But I’m not against the idea of retelling another story into a different language for a different audience, so looking at Death Note on its own terms had only put a sliver of curiosity into my own mind and my worst fears have only been proven true. As an adaptation of the anime, it does its job horribly, and on its own terms it’s just painful to watch.
For people unfamiliar with the concept of Death Note, the titular “death note” is a supernatural notebook that grants its keeper the power to kill anyone just from writing the name. Our protagonist is the young Light Yagami (Light Turner in this version, played by Nat Wolff), a teenager like any other, and with the power of the notebook as well as guidance from a shinigami named Ryuk, he decides that he will use it in order to rid the world of criminals – although not without a mysterious detective named L on his own tail. The film’s fascinating concept had already spawned a brilliant manga, so how come it has always been so difficult to adapt onto another medium? If the original Japanese features have shown us anything, it would be made clear that what is so fascinating about this premise had only become undermined into standard horror fare and Adam Wingard isn’t doing much different with a new take for American audiences, he’s reminding us of where the original Japanese films have gone wrong and then some more.
All hope of this new Death Note being able to stand out on its own would be made clear from how the deaths are taking place because they don’t play as simple as they did in the original, they play like poor Final Destination hacks as if more creativity can’t be called for. There’s only one occasion in which this new film features a kill in the same manner that fans would have remembered from the original series (a heart attack), but it happens only at one point in the film. If anything, it only comes off as exploitation for younger viewers in the veins of a CW show because the most that they ever appear to be is trashy, yet flow the way they do because they take their own material so seriously. Death Note doesn’t seem to be aware of the way it appears on the outside (Ryuk’s CGI is still as awful as ever), if it possibly couldn’t ever be far more unappealing to the senses from there.
Speaking of the mannerisms it carries akin to a CW show, everything also becomes far more frustrating because of how its lead characters are written. Light Turner is a teenager like any other, but here his characterization only comes from as much as a rushed backstory and appearing “weird” because he’s designed as such. His descent into madness also feels nonexistent, because he straight up murders people by writing their names into the death note and without any explanation. Even more frustrating is how his relationship with Misa (Mia in this version) is portrayed, given as Mia is shown with the more sociopathic traits, because it seems to be written as a generic romance between two “weird” teenagers that dislike everything else about the world they live within. The worst case scenario with its characters had only been more evident within L, because he’s only written to behave weirdly rather than being a paranoid genius. Strong performances from its cast never seemed to be enough to raise its script from what it is.
Adam Wingard’s direction never feels fitting, because most of the time it only ever wishes to appear flashy and it only comes off as obnoxious. What’s made clear from here is how desperately he wants his audience to believe that his own Death Note is “different” from the original counterpart, but never does he present much reason for his own film to be what he sees it as. Instead, the direction feels almost like that of a fan film trying to pander to a new audience in the most obvious manners by portraying the same story as a gothic romance tale (where it immediately fails because said aspect is painfully generic like every other quirky romance between teenagers). But if Blair Witch had ever made anything clear, it was that he’s merely drawing upon what has already been done before as if he can pass it off as something of his own mind and it only becomes more of an eye roller.
I was hoping that this new Death Note film was going to be an inventive take on a concept that has always been so fascinating to me, but Wingard’s film does exactly what I’ve feared that the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation would do. Granted, I was never a fan of the live-action Ghost in the Shell on the count that I’ve adored the original anime and manga for the longest while, but because it undermined what made the original film so thought-provoking by having it blend in with everything we’ve become overly familiar with. On some count this new Death Note has already proven itself to be “different” when put right next to the original Japanese films but both films make their own failures obvious. However, a mutual failure that both carry is that they paint a brilliant concept into generic horror fare. I’ll probably take this over the original Japanese films, but it never was difficult to be better than them anyway.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Adam Wingard
Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater, from the manga by Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba
Produced by Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Masi Oka, Jason Hoffs, Ted Sarandos
Starring Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Shea Wigham, LaKeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 100 minutes