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Death Note adaptation is far from terrible, but lacks the impact of the original

Ian Obst, Online Editor

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The newest addition to the growing library of original Netflix programming, the Hollywood adaptation of the acclaimed manga and anime Death Note feels like three different films in one. As a film on its own merits, taking the ideas of the original and giving it an American view, it is a more than decent teenage-centric horror mystery. As the newest film from director Adam Wingard, known for You’re Next and Blair Witch (2016), it has many of the elements he often brings to his films, both good and bad. However, as an adaptation of a beloved property, Death Note falls flat in some areas and shines in others.

The initial premise is very similar to the source material, along with the expected cultural changes. Set in Seattle, teenager Light Turner comes across a mysterious black notebook with the name “Death Note.” Its discovery leads him to come in contact with god of death, Ryuk, telling him the purpose of the Death Note before coaxing him to test it on a school bully. With a classmate named Mia, they initially vow to use the Death Note to rid the world of criminals before events take a darker turn, bringing in genius but arrogant detective L.

The premise can be both Death Note’s biggest strength, and its greatest weakness. When it sticks to the original source, and even in the few ways it moves away from the original, Death Note works really well. The idea of a Death Note still remains interesting, and characters like Ryuk and L still remain as memorable as they once did. The combination of horror and mystery is not entirely unique, but it remains a great hook to Death Note’s story. However, it falters in some of the Americanization. In particular, the relationship between Light and Mia, the updated version of Misa from the original manga and anime, feels unnecessary and forced. Unlike the relationship between Light and Misa in the original, which was given time to grow and develop, the one between Light and Mia in the movie feels like it just wants to fit in with the trends of popular young adult fiction. There are also some scenes that just feel out of place with the tone, mostly the overabundance of gore and the action-packed ferris wheel scene shown in the original trailer for the movie.

Sadly, the story is not the only part of Death Note that feels half-baked. This really is shown in the film’s casting. Whether or not whitewashing is part of it is up for personal opinion, but the overall quality of their performances is mixed. There are some downright great performances. Willem Dafoe, known by most for his performance as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, absolutely shines as Ryuk, perfectly matching the sarcasm and sinister dark comedy of the original character. Lakeith Stanfield, most known for portraying Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton, also brilliantly portrays the strange genius of L. However, other performances feel like the actors did not give it their all. Nat Wolff, who has shown his acting talent in films like The Fault in Our Stars, feels like he is giving half of that talent in his role of the more generically written Light, while Margaret Qualley feels like she is doing the same for Mia. The other performances in the film work fine, but do not seem like anything memorable.

It is easy to tell that the cast and crew tried really hard to make a great version of Death Note. Wingard’s direction in mixing the original dark atmosphere and classic neo-noir elements with the playing of light and shadow is perfectly haunting, while the soundtrack does its own job of bringing the world to life. Combined with the story elements that worked and the standout performances of Dafoe and Stanfield, it is in these moments that Death Note feels special and above other American adaptations of anime. However, the bland characters and performances, combined with some uninspired and tonally inconsistent story elements, end up making Death Note a decent film with great moments surrounded in parts of more popular films and genres.

All photos from IMDb

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