By Jack Dignan
Video game movies are often regarded as some of the weakest film adaptations in cinema history. And that’s justified. They are, almost consistently, terrible. However, it’s probably time we cut them some slack. They’re awful, yeah, and there’s some I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to remove from my memory, but a rising trend of anime adaptations are making their way to the big screen as of late and they’re giving video game movies a run for their money. Just this year we had Ghost in the Shell, a lifeless attempt at adapting the beloved classic that failed in almost every regard. I don’t know if I even want to start thinking about Dragonball: Evolution again either.
Alas, like with our early mindset towards video game movies, surely there’s going to be a good anime adaptation soon, right? Wrong. For Death Note has hit Netflix screens all around the globe, and the search for a decent anime adaptation continues. At least it seems we might be heading in the right direction. This is, after all, a step up from what’s already come, and if Netflix profits boost, they’ve recently suggested interest in bringing a sequel to life. Between the source material’s built in fan base and Netflix’s ability to control the minds of every person alive and dead, this seems likely. Hopefully they get it right next time.
The premise behind Death Note isn’t difficult to grasp. In fact, it’s pretty freaking cool. We follow the story of Light Turner (Nat Wolff), your generic white teenage fuck-boy struggling to fit in at school and ogling the in-a-relationship pretty girl, Mia (Margaret Qualley) who keeps giving him looks during lunchtime. It gets better, I promise, because then, as if by magic, a notebook drops from the sky, titled ‘Death Note.’ With it comes a sinister and demonic presence named Ryuk (Jason Liles, with Willem Dafoe as the voice). Ryuk grants Light the powers of death. If he writes somebody’s name into the book, they die. But as he begins to stretch and play with his abilities, things are taken too far, and a mysterious detective named L (Lakeith Stanfield) begins working on a way to bring Light down.
It’s a game of questionable morals as Light descends from sympathetic victim to all-powerful god. The Americanised remake creates a new interpretation of these characters and their arcs, allowing for plenty of surprises for both old fans and new as we follow these heroes transcend through a morally grey time in their life and come to terms with the animalistic instincts humans have when given unearthly powers. No Captain America’s here. Their true personalities shine, and it’s one of the most fascinating ideologies present in Death Note. It asks the question of what to do when we’re able to do something, and how to distinguish which evil is the lesser of two evils. Granted, bits and pieces of it have been done before, but it's a subject matter I'm always curious to see play out.
This moral unawareness creates tension and excitement in the grim and twisted narrative. You’re questioning the hero’s actions right until the very end. When the credits role, a lingering question of morality remains. Do you side with Light or L? Bad or evil? Justice or the law? Personally, I struggled to connect with Light. His character arc is too rushed and messy, evoking sympathy with also evoking just as much hate. The moment he’s given this power, he turns into a mass-murdering psychopath, which, granted, does evolve into a more humane quest as he attempts to bring down the world’s criminals, but it’s not enough. You’re told why you should care, but I never felt it. He didn’t resonate with me.
However, you don’t get given enough time with L to care for his side of the story, either. The entirety of Death Note finds these characters at war with one another, both aware of what the other person is doing and finding a way to outdo the other, but the overarching story is skimmed over and summarised with little to no impact. This is a 100-minute adaptation of a 19-hour anime. You simply cannot condense this entire story down, but that’s what they try to do. Granted, I haven’t seen the anime or read the manga, but its fingerprints are all over this film. In similar fashion to the recent Dark Tower movie, the lackluster film adaptation struggles to work in its own right, but leaves me curious about watching what came before.
The majority of film’s problems come down to the pigsty of a script. It’s all over the place. Adam Wingard’s direction is sensational, capturing the scenarios with a distinct visual style and just enough brutality to keep things engaging, but the gore-filled journey lacks substance. The morally deprived premise and ideas are interesting, but they, for the most part, fail to translate to the big screen (or little screen depending on where you watch Netflix). I did love the character of Ryuk, his frequently out of frame presence creating an uneasy atmosphere, but he simply is not used enough. His first appearance is effective for the most part, but a moment in which Alex Wolff is forced to scream at the top of his lungs had me dying with laughter.
And on the topic of unintentional comedy, there’s several moments throughout that are exactly like that. This isn’t a comedy, yet I found myself laughing to the point where my dogs became concerned for my health. During the third act, a supposedly emotional moment takes place between two characters, and we slow down the frame rate substantially. It could’ve, and should’ve, been effective. Instead, Chicago’s ‘I Don’t Want To Live Without Your Love’ plays (a song I genuinely enjoy) and I struggled to hold it together. Most of Death Note’s music cues are fantastically mood setting, but this one had me rolling on the floor in hysterics during what should’ve been a powerful, emotional story beat.
Death Note’s been under a lot of slack ever since its initial announcement. It felt as if the world was out to hate this film, so I really tried to enjoy it. Even through all the hate, I held onto hope that Adam Wingard could pull through, redeeming himself from last year’s Blair Witch reboot and delivering something more along the lines of the fantastic You’re Next or The Guest. Sadly, it isn’t. Not even an apple-addicted demonic Willem Dafoe could save Netflix’s latest original flop.
2 1/2 Stars
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