The first reviews for director Adam Wingard and Netflix's Death Note suggest that the film is yet another live-action anime movie adaptation misfire. Wingard's Death Note follows on the heels of director Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell live-action movie from earlier this year. That Scarlett Johansson-led film was both a critical and commercial dud, but did help to shine a spotlight on the longtime, larger conversation about whitewashing anime/manga properties and the difficulties of translating Japanese comic book stories into America-based narratives, in the first place.
Death Note (2017), as was scripted by Jeremy Slater (co-writer of the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot), takes place in Seattle and revolves around one Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a brilliant teenaged outsider who happens upon a mysterious notebook that gives its user the power to kill anyone whose name they write down in it. Light, with the help of his fellow higher schooler Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), in turn decides to use his newfound "Death Note" to rid the streets of his city of crime, by killing off one law-breaker after another. However, Light's vigilante actions soon attract the attention of both the police and a highly-intelligent, if quirky and enigmatic detective known as simply "L" (Lakeith Stanfield).
Wingard and Netflix's Death Note was first screened for the general public at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, well ahead of the film's premiere on the streaming service later this week. The first wave of reviews for Death Note are now online and, as indicated earlier, the initial critical consensus is negative at the time of writing this. To learn more about why critics aren't digging the movie, read on for some spoiler-free excerpts from the first Death Note reviews (and click the corresponding links, if you want to read the reviews in full).
The Wrap - Inkoo Kang
The filmmakers throw in some usual Hollywood pablum about the dangers of vigilante justice and the seductions of absolute power, but those flimsy messages fly in the face of the rest of the film. Nor are the deaths fun or suspenseful to watch - curious for a horror helmer like Wingard, who directed such well-received genre fare as “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” Save for the denouement atop a ferris wheel, the whole picture reeks of paycheck collection.
Indiewire - David Ehrlich
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, a film that wastes a handful of goofy performances and a gluttonous degree of hyper-violence in the service of a total dead end.
Polygon - Julia Alexander
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. [The original anime] 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 [the film] does. [It's] a lazy, unambitious, forgettable movie that lacks any imagination, heart or entertaining values.
Slant Magazine - Clayton Dillard
As more shadowy figures and exposition are wedged into the film to satisfy fans of the source material, Wingard loses hold of his initially trenchant central construction of a globally inclined outlaw couple fueled by a strange romance scored to pop music and thriving on violence. Whereas the more grounded scenes of Death Note, whether in Light's home or at school, anchor a startlingly bloody fantasy of power run amok, the scenes that fixate on super powers and code-busting seldom manage to rise above the realm of serviceable YA fiction.
MYM Buzz - Dave Golder
Like the recent US remake of Ghost in the Shell, this Netflix version of Death Note is likely best avoided if you love the original source material... However, if you’re new to this story, pretty much everything that’s good about this film - apart from some delightfully gruesome deaths... are the things left intact from the manga... Less successful is the film’s tone, which wavers precariously between John Hughes comedy and Final Destination and is never particularly funny or particularly scary.
IGN - Blair Marnell
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.
Similar to the criticisms of Ghost in the Shell, these Death Note reviews suggest that Wingard's movie struggles to adapt its Japanese source material in a coherent manner and lacks the innovative flourishes that led to the filmmaker's earlier horror genre throwbacks (You're Next and The Guest) becoming both critical darlings and fan-favorites within the horror/thriller community. However, whereas Ghost in the Shell was taken more to task for keeping the Japanese setting of its source material but featuring a primarily white cast, it sounds as though Death Note's whitewashing issues are as much thematic as surface-level. In other words, it seems that the movie simply fails to find a way for this story to resonate as strongly in a U.S.-setting as it does in a Japanese one.
It's not all doom and gloom for Death Note though, based on what critics are saying thus far. Most everyone seems to agree that Willem Dafoe as Ryuk - the "Death God" who owns the Death Note and passes it onto Light in the story - is an inspired bit of casting, while some critics are also giving Wingard credit for having created some uniquely gruesome horror/thriller set pieces here. The general outlook towards the film could start to improve once more people have seen it too, especially among those who have no prior knowledge of the Death Note franchise. For those who are die-hard Death Note fans, unfortunately, it sounds like this re-interpreation probably isn't going to be your cup of tea.
Source: Various (see the above links)
- Death Note (2017) release date: Aug 25, 2017