Following Ghost in the Shell earlier this year, 2017 brings us our latest Hollywood adaptation of a popular Japanese anime (in this case, it was actually a manga before it became an anime) in the form of Netflix's Death Note.

Quite simply: Death Note is awful. It should be mentioned that I have not read the original manga nor have I seen the anime and I went into this film blind, with the sole purpose of judging this as a singular piece of media - irreverent to the source material. But, even as that, this film does not work. I have since done some research of my own on the original Death Note - in order to draw comparisons to the original and to see how Netflix handled this adaptation - and it just makes the film worse. However, regardless of the original, there are still a lot of glaring flaws with this film itself that make it weak - even as its own thing. The story follows high-school student Light Turner (Nat Wolff), who finds himself in possession of the 'Death Note', a notebook with the ability to kill anyone whose name is written within it. Relishing in this power, Light's new godlike abilities quickly attract the unwanted attention of the God of Death, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), a girl at his school, Mia (Margaret Qualley), and a detective by the name of L (Lakeith Stanfield).
On paper, Death Note sounds like it could make for a very interesting - and very entertaining - film. The anime certainly did a successful job of adapting the source material. However, I think the biggest problem with Netflix's adaptation is in its script. For a film that boasts such a riveting premise and teases such compelling ideas and potential, the writing is horrible and mawkish. This a film that is too conventional and cliched for its own good; the narrative, right from the opening scene, is so eye-rollingly formulaic and bland. And the execution of it is just as weak and lazy. The writing is devoid of any intricacies and nuance, very sloppily setting up its characters and its story - expositionary scenes are in abundance here, and it's just frustrating. The dialogue itself is horrible; the conversations are cringe-worthy and contrived - the screenplay is clearly irreverent about creating any sense of authenticity to the proceedings. The characters are weak and as two-dimensional as they come; the film lambastes Light with a "tragic backstory" in the hopes to create sympathy for the character but it is never explained or really explored further than purely being mentioned for the sake of giving our protagonist a tragic backstory. L and Mia are there for the sake of being there and their development is pretty much non-existent.

The screenplay is quick in its dismissal of a lot. Given the weight of the twisted concept of this book with the ability to kill people and these characters utilising its ability, it brushes over that quite quickly. Death Note is just so messy and all over the place and there's an evident lack of any real focus - it's a film that is quick to set up arcs and ideas without exploring them further or really explaining why things have happened the way they happened and having everything play out the way it does for mere convenience to the story and the writers. The screenplay is all over the place; thematically, this film is all over the place; tonally and stylistically too, this film is all over the place. Frankly, this is a film that feels rushed. Its runtime is short and the film could easily have been a bit longer and fleshed out its ideas and its characters more thoroughly and already have felt more coherent and concise. But, instead, it just feels like a rushed sequences of unusual decisions and incoherent events strung together by a messy, awfully written screenplay to fill out a runtime quota.
The acting is no better either. Nat Wolff is as one-dimensional in this role as you can get and Margaret Qualley is just as poor as his 'girlfriend' (their lack of chemistry makes it awfully hard to believe their relationship). Our two leads feel very miscast and their performances just feel awkward and devoid of any personality and depth whatsoever. Lakeith Stanfield is fine as L; he brings a nice ambiguity to the mysterious character but that's about it. It's Willem Dafoe that steals the show here, though, as Ryuk. The CG for the character may be questionable but Dafoe's voice work is menacing yet charismatic and the scenes in which he appears are easily the film's best - sadly he is very underused. The cinematography is also great; the film looks slick and pretty and Adam Wingard's direction is pretty competent too. He certainly seems to be trying his best, it's just a shame that the screenplay is so bad; sadly, slick visuals aren't enough to save this film. Death Note lacks any actual focus and compelling edge and becomes too much of a watered-down/half-arsed YA film pandering to young audiences to create something rich and be the dark, riveting, hard-edged drama it could have been - like the anime and the manga are. It's squandered potential; bland and frustrating. Maybe Hollywood should stop adapting anime and perhaps Netflix's Death Note will be better suited with its name written within the titular book: dead.

VERDICT:

Adam Wingard certainly tries his best but, sadly, Death Note is a mess. It's mawkish and bland but, most disappointingly, it is squandered potential.


 

About the Author

Awais Irfan
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.

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