Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What's On Netflix?: DEATH NOTE (2017)

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week we review Netflix's adaptation of the popular manga series DEATH NOTE.

I sat down to watch the Netflix Original film Death Note with only a passing familiarity with the manga series that spawned it. I knew of the original work, but had never read it, or watched its original anime adaptation, either. There's something about an anime series achieving mainstream popularity in America, where cartoons and comics are still largely viewed as the exclusive domain of children and young people, that makes me question how good that series really is.

So when word got out that Netflix was making an adaptation of it, I initially didn't give it a second thought ... until the Internet reactions began. You may have heard that the Netflix Death Note adaptation ranks a solid "meh" at best. This is at least what I heard, but what got my attention were the negative reactions, which had little more to say than "the original was better", a rarely untrue statement in the case of any adaptation. Either that, or they would just throw out another round of the tiresome charge of "whitewashing", that heinous cultural atrocity committed whenever characters of originally non-white ethnicity, or works created by non-whites, are adapted using white actors. This charge carries no weight with me. If originally white characters, or works created by whites, can be acceptably adapted by non-whites, then the reverse must also be acceptable. To think otherwise is a double-standard. I prefer to worry about whether the actor given the role can do the character justice, which usually turns out to be the case.

So it was defiance of popular Internet opinion that drove me to my first Death Note experience, more than anything. And now that I've seen it? I can't speak for the quality of the original work, but this version isn't half-bad.

I had to stick with it for a minute before it won me over, though. For the first maybe ten minutes, Death Note makes the mistake of trying to recreate the over-the-top emotion that is one of the hallmarks of the anime style. Fortunately, the last time we have to endure this is when Ryuk, the demon who accompanies the cursed notebook at the center of Death Note's story, first appears to Light Turner, the teen who finds the notebook after it falls out of the sky. Light (Nat Wolff) goes through the standard round of scream takes ala-anime, which almost work but for the fact that life will never successfully imitate art in this regard, and then things get down to business. In case you're a Death Note noob like me, the plot is simple: write the name of a person in the notebook with that person's face fixed in your mind, as well as the circumstances of their death if you've a creative streak, and that person will die. There are rules involved -- at least 94 of them -- but these are barely referenced throughout the film, a point with which I suspect longtime Death Note fans may take understandable issue. The film only seems to reference them to establish the narrative framework of the notebook, and afterward when a convenient plot device is needed.

Light quickly realizes the power of the notebook is real, after he uses it to put an end to a particularly virulent school bully, and then promptly uses it to hook up with his dream girl, the emo cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley). Mia, a high-school answer to Marvel anti-heroine Jessica Jones but for the occasional smile, quickly becomes disturbingly attracted to the book, which isn't surprising. I would question the moral scruples of any woman for whom "Hey babe, I've got a magic notebook that kills people. Wanna try it?" is a successful pick-up line. Anyway, Mia seduces Light into making the most of it, and I mean that literally. There follows a montage of the two alternately making out and writing names in the book, then watching the news for word of the result as though it was a strange niche variety of porn.

That the two only use the book to kill Bad People is of little comfort, even though their targets are typically hardened criminals. Soon enough, though, they start to dream bigger, and these bigger dreams have the dual effect of attracting the attention of law enforcement, and pushing Mia further over the edge, and then things spiral out of all control.

Light and Mia are my two biggest problems with this movie, simply because they come off as 2017 teenager stereotypes. Given the power of life-and-death over all mankind, they predictably get it into their foolish heads that they can use this power to Make the World a Better Place -- "If we just kill all the Bad People, then there'll be no more suffering!" As though no new Bad People will rise to fill the gap, or that ancient, cosmic law about stuff happening would somehow be magically repealed. To his credit, Light grows up a lot over the course of this story, and comes to realize a fundamental truth about the way the power to end the lives of others is perceived. Those without such power rarely see it as being a force for good. Those with such power can quickly forget that it is anything else. Mia, on the other hand, goes through no such change, plunging instead deeper into madness. Since she doesn't start out particularly likeable, her downward spiral is a little too telegraphed to come off as tragic.

On the other side of the equation, this movie is at its best when one of two characters are on the screen. First is the demon Ryuk, acted by Jason Liles and voiced by Willem Dafoe. Ryuk is like a cross between the Grim Reaper, and the Joker as performed by Heath Ledger; he is an agent of chaos, and he loves his work. He can only be seen by Light, since Light is the keeper of the cursed notebook, and he keeps popping in to liven things up at just the right time. He's like a mad, capering version of Donnie Darko's Frank the Bunny.

The second character to watch is a detective known only as "L", played with inspiration by Lakeith Stanfield. L is brought on to the case after the body count racked up by Light and Mia's dabbling with the supernatural surpasses 400, and it quickly becomes clear that L is both frighteningly brilliant, and just the tiniest bit broken, a crack that will widen as the story goes on. The closest thing I can compare L to is Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, and so I must confess my limited experience with pop culture detectives.

This movie makes me want to give the Death Note anime a try, and I'm happy to see that series is still available on Netflix as well. It's possible that I may come to realize how mistaken I was in enjoying this version, and see that the anime is superior. If so, I'm fine with that. Either way, my horizons have been broadened, and that's not a bad thing.

Death Note is rated TV-MA for gore and language.

Robert's Score:
7 / 10

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