27 August 2017

There has been a strange juxtaposition of August's climate and the month's Netflix original releases, in that while the former has seen record-high heat waves, the latter have been rather lukewarm. Over the past few weeks, the popular Blockbuster-slaughtering streaming site has given us the very okay sequel miniseries to the prequel miniseries to the movie Wet Hot American Summer, along with the first season of small-screen Avengers, The Defenders - which was entertaining, but not much to write home about. And then Death Note fell from the sky, and it wasn't even worth writing in.

Anime and general animated Japanese/Japanese-influenced media have an unfortunate tendency to get twisted into terrible Americanized movies. To wit: M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender, James Wong's Dragonball: Evolution, and Rupert Sanders' more recent Ghost in the Shell. (But it should be noted that I will defend the fast-paced bag of Jolly Ranchers that was Speed Racer to my grave.) Adam Wingard's Death Note managed to be both a spectacular dumpster fire of an adaptation and a maybe half-decent movie, depending, as per usual, on the viewer.

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Straight from the get-go, we were made well aware that Death Note wouldn't be anything like the show we know and love. We saw the cast list. We watched the trailer. We already had a taste of the dichotomy. Light is simply not Light, Misa is not even Misa (she's Mia, and terrible), and L... well actually, L isn't bad. All of our characters - hell, even L - have been rendered drastically different, but if we're being fair, that can be chalked up to an oft overlooked yet highly-used device called "creative license." It's what allowed the Mouse to have Ultron built by Stark and Banner instead of Hank Pym, and why Hermione Granger grew into a paradigm of dehumanized perfection in the movies even though in the books she boasts great intelligence often weighed down by innate human flaws. In these two examples, the use of creative license results in an inevitable schism: people who've read the originals might not dig what's been done to their unfamiliar friends, whereas those who are totally new to it all are more likely to embrace the changes.

The problem lies in the fact that American anime adaptations tend to be crap either way. I saw The Last Airbender without having watched the Nickelodeon show, and I still hated it. I watched Dragonball: Evolution after having only caught a handful of DBZ on after-school Toonami, and I spent the following week rubbing garbage from my eyes. I checked out American Ghost in the Shell two years after a drunk-and-half-asleep viewing of Japanese Ghost in the Shell, and I may as well have been just as drunk and half-asleep for the former. That's because these movies are objectively bad - not just as adaptations, but as... well, movies. There are certain things - factors beyond the subjective - that can conclusively determine the quality of a film: writing, directing, pacing, acting... From damned near all of those things, the aforementioned adaptations suffer.

So does this Japanese-to-American curse apply to Death Note?

Well, film-wise, Death Note isn't "objectively" good, but it's not objectively horrible, either. The whole time I was watching the flick, I kept thinking, "I might not hate this so much if I never watched the show." If Ryuk had erased my memory of the Death Note after I finished the series, there's at least a chance that I might've mildly enjoyed the movie.

I say "mildly" because while it's true that one could pardon the contrast between characters in the anime and those in the movie, the execution of such differences might be off-putting regardless of your exposure to the show. To a certain extent, an artist must stick to the source material - especially when it comes to the meat of it. Given the fact that Death Note is grounded in its diverse characters, making significant tweaks to them may have been a bad move.

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Light Yagami - lead of the original Death Note - is a confident, intelligent, popular and attractive teenager. He carries an almost misanthropic attitude, which stems both from his arrogance and an extreme hatred of perpetually expanding injustice. After finding the Death Note - a mysterious notebook that gives its owner the ability to kill pretty much anyone - Yagami decides to rid the world of the worst it has to offer, killing off dozens of known felons in the span of a week. Of course, since every gift comes with a curse, a death god named Ryuk - true owner of the Death Note - hangs around Yagami, curious of how the human intends to use his notebook. Ryuk is a viewer, a voyeur, an audience - watching Yagami's every move mainly as means of entertainment. He knows that for Yagami, the situation will not end well, but for Ryuk, the ride is so enjoyable. All in all, he's just bored - which is why he dropped the Death Note into the human world to begin with. Yagami, meanwhile, doesn't fear Ryuk or the ominous implications of the Death Note, because he's drunk with the wealth of power obtained by making his presence (albeit anonymously) known to the world in the form of a criminal-killing God nicknamed Kira.

Light Turner - lead of the Netflix movie, played by Nat Wolff - is none of those things. Instead, he meets all the earmarks of the stereotypical Hollywood teenaged underdog: unathletic, unpopular, super intelligent and super angsty. Like Yagami, though, he despises crime. (But, I mean, who doesn't? Besides criminals, obviously.) Turner finds and uses the Death Note in basically the same manner as Yagami, killing off criminals and bad guys and the like. Ryuk is there, watching over Turner, except this time he's not doing it out of boredom. We actually don't really know why he's there at all. He kind of just is, and he's no longer the audience, standing on the sidelines to enjoy the show. His role in Light's life becomes interactive; he feeds Turner the idea of killing off criminals and influences many of his decisions. This not only alters both characters, but diminishes their dynamic into something hackneyed and boring. Yagami chose to kill of his own accord. This firmly established his character as rigid, fervent, and unrelenting. Turner, meanwhile, is Yagami's spineless counterpart, requiring Ryuk to peer pressure him into killing, and even then, his "fervor" is all but nonexistent. It's hard to give a damn about a whiny, impressionable, cookie-cutter sap like Light Turner, and easy to yawn at every aspect of the uninspired devil-on-your-shoulder Ryuk. Willem Dafoe - whose casting is spot-on - admittedly breathes life into the death god with his distinct, creepy Green Goblin voice, but it's not enough to fix the mercilessly butchered character.

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And then there's Mia Sutton - Misa Amane in the anime - who, like the others with whom she shares the screen, brings nothing to the table in terms of interest and originality. In the anime, Amane is a famous model who holds a Death Note of her own. She discovers Kira's identity and develops an unhealthy obsession with Yagami. The feeling isn't mutual; Yagami treats her like any other person in his life, which is to say, dirt. But still, Amane sticks to him like glue, consistently as loyal as she is dangerous. Meanwhile, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) only shows real interest in Light Turner after he prematurely spills everything about his Death Note onto her. The bigger problem with Sutton is that we don't know enough about her to really care. She has no exposition, no backstory, no specific drive. She just wants to use the Death Note - end of story. That in itself works only as the basic foundation of a character - of course she wants to use the Death Note. Who wouldn't? But why is she so hell-bent on using it to the point of sociopathic manipulation? What tragic event from her past - or whatever reason - made her this way? We simply don't know. We're never told. It's never touched upon. And this is where her character joins the others in falling flat.

The film's almost saving grace is L, played by Lakeith Stanfield. Aside from having an altered race - which is fine, as it doesn't affect the character at all - he's relatively true to his animated counterpart. L is a young, secretive detective of considerable intelligence, who, through methods of analytical deduction, uncovers the true identity of Kira. Though he serves as the antagonist, he could be considered the "good" guy opposite Light's power-hungry antihero. In the anime, he is depicted as unflinching, unyielding, and levelheaded all the while. But the movie chooses to eschew these crucial traits - in Wingard's version, L ends up wavering and showing weakness a lot quicker than someone with his firm confidence should, emasculating himself in an alarmingly uncharacteristic fashion.

Maybe that's to be expected from a movie that tries to cram way too much into its ~90 minute runtime. Although Death Note doesn't adapt every episode of the anime, it tries to shoehorn way too much of the series for any average feature-length film. This could explain the severe lack of character development - it's understandable that fleshing out every single individual is a difficult task to accomplish in such a brief amount of time. But is it forgivable? Should we so easily dismiss the glossing over of major developments? I mean, why even bother making this movie at all? Why take on a project whose vision heavily involves the absence of everything that should make that vision shine? (Granted, that's the sort of arrogance one might expect from Light Yagami, so I guess it's at least somewhat fitting.)

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I'm afraid for Adam Wingard's future in the realm of horror cinema. His record's dropped to a worrisome 50/50 now - You’re Next and The Guest are as wonderful as Blair Witch and Death Note aren't. Apart from the latter two movies, Wingard is a hell of a director. Case in point: the film's direction is one of a small handful of Death Note's better qualities. It looks nice. Everything's pretty. The soundtrack is also great - drizzled in Wingard's signature '80s pop-rock/shoegaze jams (see: The Guest soundtrack) ranging from "Take My Breath Away" to "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love." There's even one or two decent scares here and there. All of that makes Wingard's president-level Twitter arrogance disheartening to say the least. This weekend he's opted to whine about his critics - whom he has deemed "trolls" - instead of responding to them and sparking a discussion. (Plus, those critics are more fans than anything, so get it together, Adam!)

I made a comparison recently to David F. Sandberg, director of Lights Out and this year's Annabelle: Creation. Sandberg has, on multiple occasions, taken to Reddit to engage in dialogue with the fans and respond to criticism in a calm, rational manner. In this Age of Information, wherein those with some semblance of celebrity status are capable of logging onto the same social media sites we peasants tread, the potential for conversation between said celebs and the layman presents itself with a neon sign overhead. I think it would benefit writers and directors and artists of every nature to take advantage of this unique opportunity and directly connect with their audience. "They're just like us!" we so often hear of famous people, and this is a great way to prove it. But when Paul Feig uses Twitter to blast Ghostbusters fans or Donald Trump endlessly pumps meandering 140-character rants or Adam Wingard tweets petty name-calling to his critics, these celebrity nitwits are only damaging their own reputations. Such petulant public behavior shows bitter insecurity, lack of sensibility, and the kind of unwarranted self-importance that, considering the source, can be a huge bummer, especially since it's quite possibly the worst way to prove that maybe they really are "just like us."

About the Author

Brad Grandrino