Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: "Death Note" squanders its great ideas

Death Note Review
Before we begin, let me just say that I never read the original "Death Note" manga. I never saw any of the previous films. This is my first media shakedown of any and all things "Death Note." I can't tell you how it connects to its source material. I can't tell you how it compares to other adaptations. I can't tell you any of that. I have no idea how fans have been reacting to this 2017 take of the material, but I know the critics haven't been embracing it. I know this series has passionate fans, and before any of them start yelling at me for what I am about to say, I need to lay bare that I a novice to this story and that obviously effects my viewing of it, just as if I am a hardcore fan of some adaptation.

You know what "Death Note," the 2017 Netflix version of this story, reminded me of? It reminds me of "Last Action Hero." "Last Action Hero" was a 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, where a young movie-crazed boy gets a golden movie ticket that allows him to enter the movie world of his favorite character, played by Schwarzenegger. Do you know what I'd do if I was suddenly sucked into the world of the movie I was watching right now? I'd enjoy the hell out of it. I'd explore every untapped corner of the world. I would just, flat-out enjoy myself. In "Last Action Hero," the boy just goes around trying to convince everyone in this movie world that they are living in a movie and it aimed for the easy joke every time involving Schwarzenegger. (Sly Stallone was The Terminator in this movie world? How funny!) Bottom line, "Last Action Hero" missed the fun of its material. It took an ambitious route then wrote a safe script around that idea.

The same thing happens in "Death Note." I don't know how much this American version differentiates from the original, so bare with me. But a high school student finds a book that says Death Note on the cover. When he opens it a death god named Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Ryuk explains that this student now has the power to kill, as long as they know the name and face of the person in question. You just take this notebook, write the full name of the person you want dead, write a description of their death, then within seconds it becomes a reality. For split second, the high school student is freaked, but then he tries to use the notebook for good. He targets criminals, pedophiles, global terrorists, drug cartels. But then, very soon, it becomes clear how muddy the waters get when you realize that you are taking lives out of the world.

That premise is a wildly ambitious one, full of potential and brimming with different avenues and ideas for a movie. For the first twenty or so minutes, I figured we'd get a wicked little thriller about the ideas raised in my paragraph above. As the movie played out, my thoughts continued. But as the running time dwindled down to zero, it was pretty evident that director Adam Wingard had no idea what the fuck he was making. This is a movie that has no idea what it wants to be. Is it a horror movie, is it a suspense thriller where a kid gets in over his head? Is it a police procedural? Is it a John Hughes style high school movie with a dark edge? We don't know. Clearly, the crew didn't know either, because they throw all of those strikingly different ideas into a blender and smoothie made from those ideas is the movie we get. 

There may be a stereotype that high school students are dumb, I find that harsh personally, but some people believe this stereotype. I don't mind movies about dumb people, but when a movie forces its characters to not behave like a normal human being, its hard for me to sit through. Light, the high school kid who obtains this mysterious notebook played by Nat Wolff, kills a bully near the beginning of this film, and besides a little screaming he never has a reaction. He starts using the notebook to off people left and right, but he never has one reaction to the fact that he's killing people. He's stopping them from breathing and that there is a creepy demon over his shoulder laughing manically why he does it. He has absolutely no reaction. No fear, no remorse, no guilt, no emotion whatsoever. There is no evidence that this kid is a sociopath before hand, so how can he not have some kind of reaction to killing people? Even if they are bad? Look, Paul Kersey from "Death Wish" may have been an architect, but when he kills his first victim after teaching himself the way of the gun, he has a real human reaction to it. How am I supposed to feel about a main character I can't emotionally connect with? And he runs and tells his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) about this book and she just decides to sleep with him? What?

All of this is hard to accept since I was such a fan of director Adam Wingard. This guy made the incredibly smart slasher film "You're Next." He made two memorable segments in both "V/H/S" and "V/H/S 2." He made the awesome "The Guest." He's clearly a talented filmmaker who uses smart characters to tell an emotionally charging story. Here, his film is all over the place emotionally, all over the place logically and all over the place tonally. Should I feel bad for a kid who got someone important to him killed while a memorable 1980's song is blaring obnoxiously in the background? Ryuk is striking in the movie, even though we never really see him in the light, like you would in the previous movies. The score by the always reliable Atticus Ross is wicked powerful. The movie has some good ideas in it, and its rightfully stylized, but if a proper script was written to hone in those great ideas, this could have been something. Sadly, this is just a plain boring sludge through characters and stories we don't care about. And how much potential this movie had only makes everything more aggravating.

Netflix had an opportunity to turn a new fan towards all things "Death Note," now I don't care. Which is too bad.


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