Two quick notes, this review is not spoiler free, and if you liked the anime Death Note just stay the hell away from this garbage fire of a movie. With out further ado lets get in to this
I was pretty excited when Netflix announced that they were going to make a Death Note live action Movie. There is of course already a Japanese live action death note from 2006 made for Japanese cinema by Warner Brothers, but this one was Netflix, so it should be something amazing right? WRONG. I really wanted to like this movie, like I was 100% ok with moving it to seattle, having white actors, and just calling it an adaptation. Small plot changes. totally fine with that. But, Netflix changed so much they just totally missed the point of Death Note. It’s a clear situation of Jurassic Park syndrome with Netlix replacing scientists. “so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Just because you have the money for the licenses doesn’t mean you should use them.
Ok, rant over lets get to the meat of it. DeathNote is one of my favorite anime (at least season 1) and it’s the shows ability to interplay good and evil, and present the whole dichotomy of life that really made me love it. That and the stellar demonstration of how a deductive mind works were what sucked me in to the anime and kept me watching. Sadly neither of those is present in the live action adaption.
The movie opens with our hero Light Turner demonstrating that he is normal high school kid in Seattle. He has normal kid problems, his bully is a jerk, he has no girlfriend, and he makes his way in the world by doing other kids homework. After we establish this incredibly weak character premise, hardly 10 minutes in to the movie, Light gets his deathnote and kills his bully by decapitation. The scene is played out like something from final destination, with a series of seemingly unrelated random events leading up to a bloody death. This first killing sets the tone for the entire movie. I don’t like comparing this movie to the source material, but here I have to mention that the anime has no bloody death scenes, and nothing even remotely like this wacky carnival of final destination type killings.
It’s clear that the director of this film, Adam Wingard, wanted to make Light more likeable in the adaptation than his in the manga. Because of that he doesn’t kill his detective father, or L, or really anyone who the viewer could construe as being a “good” guy. Instead of this working, I found his character to feel more like a sadist mixed with an edgy teen, something that the anime never made me feel at all. Death Note should after all be about the dichotomy of good and evil and how there are no moral absolutes. Instead Adam Wingard seemed to think it was about a smart, but edgy teen getting his revenge. This completely misses the point and robs this adaptation of any hope it had of being a good retelling of the story. We never get real reasons for Lights dislike of criminals, the vague answer of his mother getting hit by a car just doesn’t work for me. Additional adding Mia as a sort of foil to Light in an attempt to later on show us that he is in fact good and not evil, robs the show of its primary conflict of is Light a savior or just an egotistical killer. Even that could be forgiven if the movie didn’t just go compeltly off rails when it came to L.
Lacking a true “villain” in Kira/Light Wingard decided to sub in Ryuk, the death god (or Shinigami) and attribute some aspect of evil or malice to his character. We get this feeling in act I for a few moments, and then it disappears until its again needed in act 2, and finally it’s the main crux of the ending.
L is the best character in Death Note, no questions asked. I initially applauded the casting of L as a black character in this movie, because if were going to turn everyone American, we shouldn’t just have white people, but my god, this casting turned out bad. L you see is a super human detective who has a bunch of odd quirks but is the greatest detective the world has ever seen. Netflix removes the detective part, just relying on the quirks to the appeal to fans of the anime. All of the detecting is gone. Gone are the battles of will between Kira/light and L, instead we are left with an L who uses one simple gimmick to expose the supposed to be brilliant Kira. It all feels rushed and even after the reveal (which is the start of act 3) I get time constraints but the revel to the end is just too fast.
The worst part of this film is for sure the end. After revealing to Light/Kira’s father that Light is indeed Kira, Lights father (who has been established as a willing to die for the law) proceeds to beat up L and ignore his logic, ruining his character. He then uses the power he has as a detective to send the police force out TO HELP LIGHT, and arrest L who has taken up a gun and is now chasing Light through Seattle.
This is a problem that exists through the film, characters turn their core charistics on a dime, and blurt out their feelings to provide exposition. In the anime Light is masterfull at keeping the deathnote secret, and learns its powers via the scientific method and testing, Netflix gives us a flimsy set of rules that proceeds to be broken in multiple ways, and only functions as a flimsy excuse for the story’s finale.
It was those rules, that discovery, and the stakes of the game of Light vs L that made the anime interesting. None of that shows up here. Instead we get teen angst, a bland L, and a too much gore that takes away from the humility that Light/Kira is supposed to have. The famous game of wits played by L and Kira ends with a foot chase and another scene that feels like it came from final destination movie. Even the ending over-relies on the newly different rules of the Death Note, and it feels cheap, like a betrayal of the series and the whole set up of the movie.
Overall, I feel like Wingard just missed the point of Death Note with his adaptation. The changing of the Light character, the addition of the Mia character, and even the morphing of Ryuk in to something far more sinister than he ever was in the anime make this adaptation a solid pass for any fans of the series. I can’t even recommend this to someone who just wants to see a fun summer horror movie, because it really doesn’t even do that.