“Death Note,” the anime and manga series, is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s filled with questions of morality, constant battles of wits, and ethical debates that rage on even now. Truly it is an intelligent, thought-provoking series.
The live action movie on Netflix… not so much.
While it would be easy to just talk about how it is as an adaptation, there’s nothing innately wrong with taking a series idea and changing the details to reflect the society it’s being shown to. A movie should be judged on its own merits, rather than just whether or not it hits all the same notes as previous versions.
However, when an adaptation abandons all the things that made the original unique, and instead crams in every single cliche it can, devoid of original ideas or thought, then it falls short as both a movie and an adaptation. That is the area that Netflix’s “Death Note” resides, one that somehow manages to be both a poor adaptation and entirely unoriginal at the same time.
To explain, I will be going on a bit of a lengthy rant; there are a lot of points to hit, and I’ll try to transition between them properly, but it will enter spoiler territory on occasion.
From the very first minute of the film, when we’re presented with a slow motion shot of people around a school, set to a forgettable tune, the haunting mood that pervades the scene is not “what evils await?” but rather, “this is going to be painful, isn’t it?” There we meet our unlikable protagonist, Light Turner, as he sells homework answers to his fellow students. Meanwhile, his eventual love interest, Mia, is for some reason smoking while practicing cheerleading.
Without fanfare or reason, the titular Death Note drops to Earth. That is actually a decent moment, as it shows how its falling into Light’s hands is simply a matter of chance. It’s one of the rare moments in the film that shows how it could have been good. Unfortunately, any chance at building the mood is quickly ruined by the appearance of a character I can only describe as the most over-the-top, cliche bully I have ever seen.
We’re talking about a twice-held-back raging jerk whose only tactics seems to be pushing people around, tossing their stuff around, and shouting so angrily you can see the veins bulge on his neck. I have never before seen such an unoriginal attempt at portraying a nasty character. Judging by the fact that he’s still outside the school, randomly tormenting whoever’s in his way, long after Light has been kept in for detention, apparently his sole purpose for existing is to be a bully. Perhaps in doing so, we’re meant to cheer for Light as he writes said bully’s name in the Death Note, but he can scarcely be called a character at that point.
Most of the other victims of the Death Note are equally over-the-top awful. The person who ran over and killed Light’s mother? Laughing at the top of his lungs at a fancy restaurant with food still in his mouth. They’re nearly all made into caricatures of reprehensible people, so as to make the viewers want them dead as quickly as possible.
In doing so, however, it strips away any sense of moral ambiguity. Does Light have the right to be judge, jury, and executioner? Who cares, they’re all jerks! The film attempts to ask these questions, and to raise the ethical quandaries that the original is known for, but they’re simply not given the time they need to really explore, or the care that they should be given.
Oh, and speaking of the deaths, they’re a series of gruesome, surprise executions carried out by a convoluted chain of events. They’re the types of deaths you’d expect to see in a “Final Destination” movie, not “Death Note.” Loathe as I am to harp on how much the original did it better, there was a beauty in the simplicity of the heart attacks the Death Note would commonly employ; instead, the films simply go for the shock value of the deaths, like a ladder taking someone’s head off, or a waiter knocking someone into a knife.
But I’ve gone on for too long about the victims and the means of death; those are minor details in the long run, and more important are our main characters. To start with that, we have Light Turner, played by Nat Wolff. This is a different version of Light, lacking in the chess master mind or the powerful charisma of previous versions; he’s a rage-filled, hormone-driven, whiny high school student, which may be somewhat more accurate to any given student, but doesn’t make for a compelling protagonist. There are some moments where we can almost begin to like him, brief instances sprinkled in where we can almost start to root for him, but those are few and far-between.
And then there’s Mia, the film’s substitute for Misa Amane, played by Margaret Qualley. Again, I don’t want to compare her to Misa too much, since the two are different characters in nearly every way. She’s the one who pushes Light to really use the Death Note, as well as serving as eye candy. She’s also far more unhinged than Light in many ways, serving as a voice of temptation.
Unfortunately, the two have very little chemistry. Their romance was sudden and awkward, and seems based around their mutual love of killing people who they think deserve it. We’re talking about a couple that will make out while discussing who they want to kill next, and Mia seems to be turned on by Light saying he’d kill anyone who screwed her.
How does their awkward romance begin? With Light casually reading through the Death Note while sitting in the middle of a school auditorium, surrounded by other students practicing their sports. Then Mia walks up, and he practically insists on telling her all about the Death Note.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never once willingly sat alone in an auditorium while the basketball team and cheer squad were practicing in order to catch up on my reading. Presumably that would go doubly so if I was in possession of a magic notebook that could kill people. There are no lengthy security methods Light uses to keep the Death Note secret or safe, no potato chip scenes, he’s just eager to prove to this cheerleader he exchanged about ten words with before that he has a notebook that can kill people.
Which, apparently, she’s into. So they instantly hook up. Ignoring the fact that she was established earlier in the film to already be with some nameless, faceless, generic jock character. There’s simply no buildup or chemistry there, aside from their mutual love of killing people they think deserve it.
Fortunately, the film does have one saving grace, and that comes from Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. He is absolutely pitch-perfect, getting just the right blend of creepy and amusing. The CGI used to create Ryuk is very nice as well, maintaining an otherworldly design that suits the character perfectly. This is the role Dafoe was born to play, and boy does he play it up to just the right degree.
Of course, during Ryuk’s dramatic introduction, Light screams like a little girl.
By that I mean he hits the exact pitch and timbre of a prepubescent lady, and continues to do so repeatedly. What should have been a dramatic scene just turns hilariously bad as any lingering chance of taking Light seriously goes up in smoke during that scene, and no matter how many people he kills during the course of the movie, we will never forget the high-pitched shriek that came out of his mouth during that scene.
Now then, let’s get away from that (for now) and look at Light’s equal in wit and will, his worthy adversary throughout every version of the “Death Note” story: L.
Keith Stanfield does a decent job as L. He has the physical mannerisms down nicely, and all the little quirks are there, from his obsession with candy to the way he communicates over special computers. Though even then we get a very weird scene where he asks Watari to sing to him while he’s wearing special glasses, a scene I have yet to make sense of. Then there’s the fact that he can apparently summon a press conference at a moment’s notice, and puts himself on live television, in person, to call Kira out.
Other details do remain, from the symbolic use of apples to key plot elements such as Light’s father being in charge of the Kira investigation. Mind you, the symbolism feels like mere lip service without any proper meaning behind it, but at least the element is there.
And I will even give it proper credit for the moments it does right. For instance, the name “Kira” is explored in its roots in multiple languages, and is used as a smokescreen to make it seem like the real killer is in Japan. Using the Death Note to make victims write in Japanese adds to the deception, and it adds a nice plot point while still properly maintaining the details from the original.
Additionally, it introduces an interesting element, with a “previous owner” of the Death Note, alluded to early on. It hints at a longer history, a story yet untold, and one that undoubtedly ended poorly for the poor soul involved. It may even be a more interesting story than the one we’re given, and seeing how other people used the Death Note in the past may be a better story than a second-rate attempt at retelling the original story.
For all that it could do well with, though, overall the movie is simply rushed. They’re trying to fit an entire, complex story into an hour and 40 minutes, and in doing so it has to cut corners, make massive jumps in reasoning, and skips the actual metaphorical chess game that made the original so compelling. To say much more would go too deep into spoiler territory – I’ve only touched on the first half so far – but it doesn’t get better.
Overall, though, the movie simply lacks all the key aspects that made “Death Note” the hit it is. It lacks the intelligence, moral quandaries, pacing, tension, and sense of awe that defined the original series. Instead, it gives us teen angst, shock value deaths, and lengthy make out sessions. While it has some moments hinting that it could be something better, what we ended up getting falls short in every way.
Yet there is a part of me that still wants to recommend you watch it. Even if it’s poor in so many ways, it’s often times just bad enough to humorously riff, and perhaps it will go over better for those less familiar with the original “Death Note.” And I will always give Willem Dafoe props for being the perfect Ryuk.