Death Note Clip

This weekend brings another Netflix original movie to the streaming service, and it might be their most controversial yet. Death Note is an American adaptation of the famous manga of the same name, and while there has been some backlash about the whitewashing of the cast, it sounds like the most offensive thing about the movie is the fact that it doesn’t do anything fresh with the material to justify it. There’s nothing explicitly American about this new take on Death Note from director Adam Wingard other than focusing on a mostly white cast in a condensed adaptation that lacks any of the substance of the original.

Check out what some of the early Death Note reviews have to say below.

First up, for those who aren’t familiar with Death Note, you can watch the trailer here, or just read the official synopsis:

What if you had the power to decide who lives and who dies? We suggest you obey the rules. Based on the famous Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note follows a high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner inscribes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die. Intoxicated with his new godlike abilities, the young man begins to kill those he deems unworthy of life.

Based on the manga by writer Tsugmi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata, which has been previously adapted into live-action movies and shows, video games, and even a musical, Wingard’s film stars Nat Wolff (Paper Towns), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers), Lakeith Stansfield (Get Out), Masi Oka (Heroes), and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire).

Eric Walkuski at JoBlo writes:

“There is definitely something lost in translation in bringing DEATH NOTE to life as an English language film for the first time. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it’s frequently an awkward one. It is clearly ambitious, with enough spirit from the cast and crew to make it look as if there’s something meaningful brewing underneath the surface gloss, but it keeps tripping over its own feet thanks to a storyline that appears to keep changing the rules as it goes along. Furthermore, it glosses over the most interesting part of its premise – would you play God if you could? – in favor of a fairly ho-hum cat-and-mouse thriller angle.”

David Ehrlich at IndieWire was willing to forgive the whitewashing of the anime if it explored the thematic material in a new way by setting it in America, but it fails spectacularly:

“Whitewashing is never a purely aesthetic act; it’s always an indication of a deeper rot. In this case, it pointed toward an inability or unwillingness to meaningfully engage with the source material. The only reason to take such a uniquely Japanese story and transplant it to Seattle is to explore how its thorny moral questions might inspire different answers in an American context, so for this retread to all but reduce America to its whiteness indicates an absence of context more than anything else. It’s the most glaring symptom of a film that utterly fails to investigate its premise and wastes a handful of goofy performances and a gluttonous degree of hyper-violence in the service of a total dead end. Why go through all the trouble of setting “Death Note” in America if you’re not going to set it in the real one?”

Julia Alexander at Polygon has a laundry list of problems with the movie:

Death Note ignores its characters, choosing to put its emphasis on the physical horrors associated with the notebook-that-kills instead of the psychological drama that develops around it.

Death Note is turned into a run-of-the-mill American horror flick, and not a good one. It would be one thing if Death Note managed to accomplish its goal of taking another idea and morphed that into an interesting, aesthetic-driven horror, but that’s not what Death Note does.

Death Note is a lazy, unambitious, forgettable movie that lacks any imagination, heart or entertaining values.”

Blair Marnell at IGN says this is an extremely condensed version of Death Note, and there’s at least one great performance:

“Death Note adds more teenage melodrama and condenses the story of the original manga in a way that isn’t always satisfying to watch. While the leads falter, the supporting cast steps up in a big way to keep their parts in the movie grounded and entertaining. Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk was an absolutely inspired piece of casting, and he easily carried his scenes. If there is a sequel, bringing him back as Ryuk is a must.”

Death Note Reviews

Inkoo Kang at The Wrap couldn’t stop eye-rolling:

“I’ll have to trust the breadth and popularity of the 14-year-old “Death Note” franchise in Japan — which encompasses more than 100 issues of manga, two TV series, four live-action movies, several video games and a stage musical — that there’s something, anything, remotely interesting about its premise.

Director Adam Wingard’s American remake for Netflix is the latest anime adaptation to get mangled (and whitewashed) in translation; the new horror-thriller is cheesy, asinine, convoluted and ludicrous. On the plus side, if your eyeballs need a vigorous workout, this will have them rolling nonstop.”

Gary Garrison at The Playlist found the movie to be thoughtless:

“The real affront though, is the general lack of thought that seems to permeate throughout the film. Not only is much of the plot nonsensical — the climax is nearly hilarious — and the tone so oblivious, but the Wingard and co. seem to have no idea of the cultural appropriation they are undertaking. (While it was rewritten to be set in America and star Americans, as Julie Muncy wrote in io9, such adaptations “threatens to erase the cultural particularities of the original work, and it sends the message that the only way to adapt something to an American audience is to make it whiter.”) And it’s this apparent thoughtlessness that’s so frustrating.”

Emma Simmonds at The List thinks the movie doesn’t seem to have any real ambition:

“The tortured teen romance (à la Heathers) unfolds against beautifully rendered comic book-esque constructions (askew angles, stark contrasts, cascades of colour). But more of Dafoe’s beastie would have been welcome, flirtations with frights merely frustrate, and it never gets close to exploring the genuine moral conundrum of the notebook itself (the sequence where Light goes power-mad whips past in a montage). By combining elements of what feels like everything, Death Note struggles to wow as anything.”

***

It would be one thing if the American adaptation of the iconic manga tried to make the story uniquely American, adapting it for our own culture. But instead the approach to the material appears to be uninspired and lacks any real substance. Furthermore, the movie itself poorly seems to poorly straddle the line between comedy and horror, not to mention streamlining a story that could benefit from giving our characters time to absorb what it is they’re dealing with.

If you’d like to find out for yourself, Death Note comes to Netflix on August 25, 2017.

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