Death Note (2017)
Dir.: Adam Wingard
Perhaps only second to video game film adaptations, anime/manga film adaptations have historically been wrought with flaws: from inabilities to maintain faithfulness to source material, to the inability to translate complex cultures and themes, decried through a dozen or more hours, into a two hour runtime. Despite the history of several of these failed adaptations, I was cautiously optimistic for Adam Wingard's version of the Death Note series, as despite the series comprising some supernatural elements, the themes and images created within seemed a little bit friendlier to Western values than, say, Dragon Ball Z. With Netflix backing the project and a director that has proven that he knows how to make competent psychological thrillers, I was hoping that this would at least provide a decent alternate take on the series, if not necessarily reinvent or blow audiences away. Wingard's Death Note, though it has some pretty legitimate ambition, is for the most part a misfire, as it forsakes the main themes of the series in favor of melodrama, thrills, and generic young adult romance the likes of which I believed Hollywood had already moved past years ago.
The basic premise of the film is the same as the series: A smart kid named Light comes upon a book that he can write peoples' names into to kill them. A death god named Ryuk explains the rules of the Death Note to him and he is eventually pursued by a virtuosic detective named L, who makes it his ultimate goal of discovering who is behind the Death Note's murders. Literally everything else regarding the main narrative has been altered thematically: in the series, Light has ambition, he has a sense of purpose for using the Death Note, and he succumbs to temptation and becomes corrupt with power along the way, long after L begins investigating the murders. In the film, Light uses the Death Note to impress a girl, and uses it just because he feels like it, and his ambitions cease the moment L's investigation begins. This is just one of many character alterations that betray the source material. Without mentioning the gratuitous changes to beloved characters L and Ryuk, Death Note does not ever ask the big philosophical and moral questions that the anime and the manga have been praised for; rather, it simply becomes a he-said, she-said young adult thriller that feels more akin to forgettable American YA book adaptations than a celebrated cultural phenomenon.
The casting of the film could have been a little better, but at least the performances are (for the most part) okay. Willem Dafoe excels as Ryuk, which is no surprise for any fan of the series; everyone was excited for this casting decision. The three other leads, Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, and Margaret Qually all serve simply servicably. The problem with the characters in this film lies not in the performances as much as the writing: the characters are far too emotional after every conversation to the point of succumb to cliched young adult melodrama. When every characters is damaged goods, no one is damaged enough. It's more difficult to root for the characters because of their heinous reactions to events, and such anger and tension never feels earned by the film. Perhaps one of the greatest moments that could earn such tension, the rise of Kira (the identity Light chooses for his Death Note persona), is relegated to a short three minute scene, rather than given its proper due and development. This film suffers not only from a lack of adhering to the plotting and theme of the series, but from a lack of understanding what made the characters likable and profound. I'm all for changing narratives to make a better film, but these kinds of changes made the film much worse than if it had just stuck to its source.
This film has admittedly pretty good cinematography. That's about the best that I can say about this film's technical merits. The sound editing could have used a little bit of work, because it's edited like a blockbuster, with heavy bass and with some conversations harder to hear through action. This would be fine if the film was in theaters, but it's not: it's a straight-to-Netflix film should have been designed with a television in mind, rather than a theater-quality sound system. The rest of Adam Wingard's direction is pretty much by the numbers. There are some creative shots sprinkled throughout the film, but the use of slow-motion, montages, and an awful tonal choice of a classic rock song really bewildered me. This could have passed as a younger Zack Snyder style film if it were bluer and darker in color palette, which might have actually been a cooler stylistic choice if the other technical aspects were handled better.
With everything above, it may sound like I hate this movie, but I actually don't. It's decently acted, pretty to look at, and it has some legitimately thrilling sequences. It's just that in regards to comparing it to its source material - an inevitability that no matter how many times directors say "don't compare it," audiences will absolutely deserve respect enough to compare it if they wish - it falls much short of the goal of a basic adaptation. I watched the Ghost in the Shell film adaptation by Rupert Sanders earlier this year, and while that movie was not necessarily great, it was a much more competent film in terms of nailing the basic tone and stylings of its source material. But if you're just looking for an anime adaptation to watch for free, then you could kill an hour and a half with Death Note and not be too disappointed as long as you go in with low expectations and no acknowledgement of the source material. It's just a huge shame, because it's easy to see that this is just a painfully mediocre adaptation that could have easily been a great one if Wingard and Netflix followed the philosophical and moral themes of the show, rather than take the lazy, young adult romance driven approach. It's not a film I'd recommend, but it's not the worst I've seen this year. Unlike humans, this film is not so interesting.