Adam Wingard’s Death Note remake just hit Netflix and, as expected, the response has been mixed. Those going in hoping for a faithful adaptation of the source material were understandably disappointed, while others just weren’t taken by its weak characters and rushed story -- especially considering how it's based on a franchise renowned for its strength in those departments.
On the other hand, a lot of people enjoyed despite its flaws. It’s getting people talking, at least, but suffice it to say, it’s not the widely embraced Western anime adaptation the world probably isn’t waiting for. Still, Hollywood may keep trying nonetheless.
The remake isn’t on par with the anime or manga that inspired it, by any means. As a basic thriller, it’s also quite messy. That said, it isn’t without its impressive moments and, when judged on its own merits, there’s plenty to enjoy. As far as Westernized mainstream horror and fantasy goes, it’s one of the superior releases of 2017 and another worthy addition to Netflix’s burgeoning original content library.
So, acknowledging its strengths and flaws, here are 7 Things Death Note Got Right (and 8 It Got Wrong).
15 WRONG: NOT ENOUGH RYUK
Whenever he appeared on screen, Dafoe as Ryuk brought personality to proceedings. That’s just another day in the acting career of Willem Dafoe, though. He oozes charisma and menace in villainous roles. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t featured in Death Note enough to make a big impact, nor did he have a lot of material to work with.
When we’re first introduced to Ryuk in the movie, he makes his presence known by scaring Light so much that our protagonist destroys a classroom. Despite not posing a threat to Light, Ryuk comes across as creepy and darkly comical. It’s a strong introduction. After this, he’s relegated to background player without anything substantial to contribute.
In the manga and anime, Ryuk is an important character; bored, but never boring. Here, the Shinigami is only remotely memorable because of the strength of the actor portraying him. Hopefully, should a sequel happen, they’ll develop their interpretation of the character and give the brilliant actor playing him more to do.
14 RIGHT: INTRODUCE NEWCOMERS TO THE ORIGINAL
One good thing about remakes is that they serve as gateways to their predecessors -- and sometimes new forms of entertainment viewers weren’t acquainted with before. The buzz surrounding Death Note will at least bring a new audience to the manga/anime introduce them to each medium as a whole. Plus people are discussing the oldies again and bringing them back into the pop culture conversation.
Chances are those who’ll get most enjoyment out of this movie will be unfamiliar with the manga/anime that came before. Without superior material to hold it up against, viewers are more likely to enjoy the remake as its own thing. Maybe they’ll enjoy it so much they’ll be inclined to find and explore the manga work of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, along with the animated series and subsequent Japanese live-action movies.
13 WRONG: THE L/LIGHT DYNAMIC WAS MISSING
The relationship between L and Light is integral to the manga/anime. Here, their methodical battle of one-upmanship is completely disregarded in favor of a generic cat-and-mouse chase thriller that feels rushed and undercooked. All in all, a missed opportunity.
The manga/anime, and even the live-action movies to an extent, portrayed L and Light engaging in a game of intellectual chess, whereas the remake was barely checkers. The lead up to L finding out Light was responsible for the series of gruesome deaths was too easy, and the rest just played out predictably.
That’s not to say that the remake lacks excitement, however. The foot chase scene is well-executed and the film's gallows humor served a purpose. However, it was just fairly by-the-numbers and missing the complex and compelling qualities of the source material.
12 RIGHT: THE MUSIC SELECTION
Bob Marley once said, “one good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Judging by the mixed critical reception and fan outcry in response to Adam Wingard’s Death Note, plenty of people felt pain while watching it. That said, hopefully the awesome soundtrack brought some moments of joy and lessened that pain, even if it was only for a minute.
Good music is a trademark of Wingard’s movies. The Guest was praised for its synth score and ‘80s gems, and Death Note has the same idea. Featuring classics like INXS’s “Don’t Change” and Berlin’s “Take My Breathe Away” as background noise to characters with skewered morals engaging in conversation and moments of chaos happening all around them, it’s a nice touch.
If your heart doesn’t melt whenever you hear Air Supply’s “The Power of Love (You Are My Lady)” then you're probably not even human. Don’t let your potential disdain for this movie ruin the magic of that song… even though it is incorporated perfectly here.
11 WRONG: LIGHT WAS AN UNDERDOG
In the manga/anime, Light is a sociopath. He has every advantage in life, but he wants more -- he wants to to play God. In the remake, that element was replaced by the decision to make him emotional and sympathetic.
There isn’t anything wrong with the remake’s portrayal of Light. You can understand why the movie set out to do something different with the character, but in comparison to the original version, he isn’t as strong-headed or intriguing. In fact, he's pretty emo and bland, and the evil that dwells in him is afraid to come out.
It’s rare to see mainstream Western movies which centre on morally corrupt characters where audiences can't relate to the villain. Sometimes, however, it’d be nice to see a film about bad people being portrayed as non-heroic.
Still, in the anime, the strength of Light as a character is so impressive that he ultimately became a fan favorite and an anti-hero, despite his sociopathic tendencies. We rooted for him because he was cold, calculated and cool. In this case, the movie wanted us to support him.
10 RIGHT: IT HAD SOME NICE SPLATTER
For all the reasonable criticisms we can throw at the film in regards to weak characterization, rushed story, and more, one thing it did deliver was bloody thrills. The early decapitation is a particular highlight, and the nightclub massacre was a buffet of body parts. As a kill count movie, it had its moments.
According to Wingard, he let his second unit director, Jason Eisener, unleash some of that carnage. Those familiar with Eisener’s debut feature, Hobo with a Shotgun, know what a glorious sicko he is. This is tamer than that movie, but Eisener's sensibilities are all over some scenes and that's not a bad thing.
Sure, the deaths are more reminiscent of Final Destination than the manga/anime, and to be honest, this movie seems more geared towards that fanbase than fans of the Japanese source material. Understandably, that might rub hardcore enthusiasts the wrong way. However, as its own entity, it delivers serviceable splatter for bloodthirsty film fans.
9 WRONG: IT LACKED TENSION
Adam Wingard is known for creating tension in his movies. That’s evident watching his previous hybrid-horror fare like A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest. Heck, even his ill-fated Blair Witch remake wasn’t without its moments either. Therefore, it’s quite surprising that Death Note lacked any memorable intense moments.
Moreover, the manga/anime was defined by nail-biting tension and edge-of-your-seat thrills. That wasn’t for lack of trying, either. There were hints of it in the remake at times, but for the most part any semblance of it was overshadowed by rushed story progression.
The Death Note remake works as a teen soap opera with some gory payoffs, and maybe that was the point of it. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re looking for a more faithful adaptation. Still, a heavy dose of intensity always goes down a treat in any genre offering, so some more here could have improved things significantly.
8 RIGHT: LAKEITH STANFIELD AS L
Another highlight was Lakeith Stanfield as the gifted detective sensation, L. His performance contained the eccentricities and intellectual brilliance of the original character, while still bringing enough individual quirks to make it his own.
However, the strength of the character and the actor’s performance were somewhat diminished by the rushed nature of the film. While we understood that this L was the same brilliant detective as the manga/anime, we didn’t get to see him put much his skills to good use. But if Stanfield was cast in a series more in vein with the original, he'd still knock it out of the park.
Overall, L, in this case, was a great character stuck in a movie where three-dimensional characters weren't much of a priority. Still, the performance was impressive nonetheless and he honored the legacy of previous iterations by incorporating some of their traits into his own performance.
7 WRONG: IT WAS CLICHÉD
When you remove the twisted murder elements, Light’s rise from bullied loner to romantic stud is formulaic Hollywood storytelling. While the coming-of-age romance was a nice touch and his relationship with Mi(s)a gave his accomplice more to do, it wasn’t presented in a way we haven’t seen before. If John Hughes directed a horror movie, it might have turned out something like Death Note.
That said, clichéd doesn’t always mean bad. It can be cinematic comfort food. Death Note’s formulaic approach is just very mainstream and designed to appeal to a general audience. Yet, for a director who's admired for making movies which playfully twist the tried-and-tested, there weren't any real surprises here.
The manga/anime posed some interesting food for thought regarding moral ethics and the power of life and death. The remake had a prom scene with slow dancing.
Here, Wingard and co. missed out on an opportunity to explore some truly uncomfortable themes. It merely alluded to them while taking the safe route.
6 RIGHT: IT BOASTED SOME EXCELLENT CGI
It doesn’t take a lot to make Willem Dafoe look scary. In fact, you could probably slap some makeup on him and he’d pass as an ancient Japanese death spirit with believability. Unfortunately, he isn't eight-feet-tall like Ryuk is. Maybe they could have given him some stilts, but CGI was probably a safer option.
From a technical standpoint, Death Note is absolutely fine and Ryuk's design didn't stand out like a sore thumb like a lot of CGI does. That's due in no part to some of the creature design being practical, with a stand-in seven-foot-tall actor brought in don a suit. The digital effects were applied later for the monstrous magic, but the mannerisms were all carried out by a real human being.
The film captured a perfect balance between computer generated and practical effects to create a marvelous-looking creature. It wasn't overdone nor did it look too cartoonish. They can chalk that element up as a success.
5 WRONG: IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A SERIES
There are plenty of interesting ideas bubbling in the Death Note remake, but few are fleshed out due to the constraints of it being a feature-length. As a result, it feels overstuffed with little room to breathe. As a series, it could have made for something richer and expansive.
For a start, the reveal of Light should have been a slow burn cat-and-mouse chase with Light doing more to thwart L. A central story arc over the course of a few episodes would have allowed that to happen, building tension as a result. Furthermore, the relationship between Light and Mia needed more time to develop for the audience to invest in them. The pieces for a great series are all here, but there just wasn't enough running time to put them all together.
Wingard did a good job of crafting an entertaining movie that covered the basics, but as a series his vision could have been brought to life with more success. Considering Netflix’s track record of producing great television, this could have been special if it was expanded to 8-10 episodes instead of 1 hour 40 minutes.
4 RIGHT: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LIGHT AND MIA
In the Death Note anime, Misa is obsessed with Light and worships him. In the remake, their relationship sees them depicted as a teenage emo Mickey and Mallory; a serial killing power couple who find twisted love through their outsider status and willingness to end human lives whenever necessary. While neither character is as individually strong as their source material, the remake gives Misa more purpose and agency.
The major thing still lacking here was strong individual characterization, but how the couple's relationship played out made for some interesting twists and turns along the way.
All it needed was more time to blossom and characters with engaging personalities to truly soar. But the idea itself is an interesting interpretation.
3 WRONG: THE MI(S)A CHARACTER
The relationship between Light and Mi(s)a here was an interesting dynamic, and one of the strongest elements of the movie. The character of Mia as an individual, however, wasn’t as strong as she was was in the anime/manga.
The original Misa was disturbingly obsessed with Light, but she still had power and influence to stand out as a three-dimensional character with intriguing complexity. In the remake, she’s a paper mache sociopath who’s only there to serve as the evil wing to Light’s sympathetic anti-hero. She lacks dimension, and ultimately feels like a manipulative sidekick taking advantage of a hapless idiot.
Of course, this failing is due in part to most of the characters in this movie being fairly basic. Margaret Qualley's performance wasn't bad by any means. This generic characterization is nothing new in mainstream horror movies, but compared to the source material, she’s just another aspect that comes up short.
2 RIGHT: WINGARD MADE IT HIS OWN
Regardless of your opinion of the remake, at least Adam Wingard set out to make his own movie and he accomplished that. We’ve read the manga and watched the anime series. Both are fantastic. The Japanese live-action adaptations aren’t bad either. Those are there to be read/viewed any time. Why repeat it?
Granted, that’s not to say everyone who hated Wingard’s adaptation didn’t go in with an open mind. Taking liberties with known properties doesn't always equate to good change. Furthermore, it’s difficult not to compare it to its Japanese counterparts given its association with such a well-established franchise. Therefore, whether the changes worked in its favor is an entirely subjective opinion.
That said, while you could argue that this is Death Note for American teenagers, at least it’s not a copycat of what came before. Remakes should always aim to provide something new; sometimes they work out well, sometimes they don’t. But they should always try, and Wingard wasn't interested in telling the exact same story.
1 WRONG: WHITEWASHING
Whitewashing isn’t just a Death Note problem -- it’s an issue Hollywood needs to fix across the board. Especially when it comes to anime adaptations, as we saw with Ghost in the Shell earlier this year. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with Americanizing foreign entertainment; retooling properties to appeal to different regions is nothing new after all. However, that doesn’t mean cultural roots shouldn’t be acknowledged.
Casting Lakeith Stanfield as L did add some ethnic diversity, but casting an Asian-American actor in the role of Light would have been a step forward in bucking a Hollywood trend with a track record of ignorance towards Asian culture. Just look at the Doctor Strange for another recent example. And considering America is cultural melting pot, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be reflected in its cinematic output more often.
Overall, Death Note is just the latest iteration of an issue that’s visible in Hollywood and regularly unaddressed.
What did you think of the Death Note remake? Sound off in the comments!