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Movie Review: Death Note

Courtesy: Netflix

On August 25, the live-action remake of the “Death Note” franchise began streaming on Netflix. While the film is not the worst attempt at a live-action anime and manga adaptation, it still suffers many of the same problems past flops have had, such as “Dragon Ball Evolution” and this year’s live-action remake of “Ghost in the Shell.”

The story takes place in a different continuity than the anime and manga series of the same name, but still keeps many elements from the source material even though many of the ways they’re applied makes no sense in the context of the new film.

In the city of Seattle, a troubled young man named Light (Nat Wolff) comes across an enchanted notebook called a “Death Note” and a mysterious “death god” named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). The names of the people written in the book shall die, and as a result; Light’s use of the note attracts the attention of an eccentric detective known as L (Lakeith Stanfeld) and his ward Watari (Paul Nakeuchi) as Light tries to court a young woman named Mia (Margaret Qualley). Even though the changes in setting and casting have been viewed as controversial by many critics and fans, the changes made are not the main problem with the film, even if they don’t help matters.

Even with a decade having passed since the series of the same name first came to the United States, the world that Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba built still provides a surprisingly insightful and often darkly satirical commentary on morality and crime. The many parallels to real-world events could have easily made for a compelling film adaptation. Instead, the film makes the mistake of trying to cram the events of all 108 chapters of the manga and all 37 episodes of the TV series into a single 100-minute film. The result is a hot mess of a thriller that feels like a mix of the source material’s cliff notes; the overblown drama of a campy after-school special and the unintentional hilarity of a SyFy Originals movie.

The new cast seems like it always gives the impression that no one wants to be involved with the film. Even in scenes meant to be serious, the actors appear to be desperately trying to hold back laughter at the script. Some of the character deaths, while a bit creative; are so gory and over-the-top that they’d be more at home in an episode of “South Park” than a film based on such an acclaimed fictional universe.

Even so, the film is not without its good points. The film sports some relatively decent visuals for a modest budget of $40-$50 million. The CGI effects for Ryuk are serviceable, and Willem Dafoe is delightfully hammy as the character’s voice. He fully understands how ludicrous the story is and has the most fun amidst a cast taking every other role deadly seriously. Lakeith Stanfeld also seems to be making an effort as L. Even though he never fully nails the eccentricities of his namesake from the source material, the actor does try his best with what little he’s given.

Still, the film never really is able to shake off the aura of a teenage fan film. Even when taking the alternate continuity into account, the characters are so far removed from their counterparts that it seems they were transplanted from entirely different fictional works. Nat Wolff’s rendition of Light never reaches the level of cunning and complexity that made both Brad Swaile and Mamoru Miyano’s portrayals in the anime so memorable. He seems less like a revolutionary under the alias of “Kira” and more like a murderous version of Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell.” The story also sacrifices the more engaging detective work of its namesake in favor of what amounts to a bad episode of “CSI.” Worst of all, the film has the gall to set up a potential sequel near the end; even though the story structure made the simple concept of a cohesive narrative alien to the film.

When the film was announced to be a Netflix release after Warner Bros. opted to shift their focus to films centered around Lego, “Harry Potter” and the DC Extended Universe; many were concerned about how this version of “Death Note” would fare. It turns out that their skepticism was justified. Even though the rise of Netflix and other digital video platforms have given a new outlet for filmmakers to cater to niches major studios aren’t even aware exist, this version of “Death Note” squanders the potential of the format and its source material on a bleak whirlwind of unintentionally-hilarious young adult novel and film clichés. Even though some impressive visuals and a couple good performances keep the film from reaching the same lows as
“The Last Airbender,” it still pales in comparison to its namesake and fails to be a good film on its own merits. Even if the film may make a passable black comedy if it were to be re-edited, it’s not worth your time whether you’re a fan of the series or a casual viewer. With Netflix also having the original anime and a host of other options for content, just treat this film like it never happened and burn the page from your note.

Review by Steven Pryor

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