Death Note is about a Seattle high-school student, Light Turner, who finds a notebook (the titular Death Note) that gives its owner the ability to kill people simply by writing their name in it. He decides to use it to rid the world of criminals, but he soon attracts the interest of the world’s foremost detective, “L”, who is determined to catch him.
I’ve been anticipating this Death Note movie ever since I first heard about it. I’m a huge fan of the original anime, it has extremely compelling characters, fantastic pacing, and it’s probably the most clever show I’ve ever seen. I was interested in seeing how the characters would translate to an American setting (the movie is set in Seattle) and the casting of Willem Dafoe as the shinigami (death god) Ryuk was a great sign. And the movie is produced by Netflix, which has had a pretty good track record with original content.
Well, unfortunately this movie is terrible. It’s so bad that I’m doing my very first post reviewing only a single movie just so I can have more space to write about how much I hated it. I’m not usually so vehement about disliking a movie, I can usually find something to appreciate about it, but I can’t find much in this one. It’s not just a awful adaptation (I used to care about movie adaptations sticking to the source material but I’ve watched enough movies now to respect them as their own medium with different storytelling conventions), it’s a failure on every level.
One of the most interesting things about the original Death Note anime was that Light (Light Yagami, that is) was a genius. He does extremely well at anything he tries (he’s top ranked nationally in both standardized testing and tennis), he’s handsome and popular, so it makes sense that he has hubris enough to believe that he knows what’s best for the world. Throughout the show you both admire him and want him stopped immediately. His cat and mouse game with L (also a genius) has you fascinated from the very beginning because what they both do is entirely unpredictable but also makes total sense (and fits within the rules of the world).
I didn’t expect Light Turner to be exactly the same as Light Yagami, but I didn’t expect him to be so different either. He is an average whiny teenager who is bullied and there is zero reason to like him or even be sympathetic to him. He doesn’t even have much agency as a character, his actions are driven by either Ryuk’s urging or by the attention of a cheerleader that he has a crush on. None of the other characters are much better – Ryuk is probably the best one (Willem Dafoe is good like I predicted), but he’s not very nuanced either.
The over-simplification of the characters is a problem, but sadly it is not the only problem, or even most of the problem. The pacing is too fast in the beginning and too slow towards the end. The plot is more like a bunch of plotholes connected tenuously together (I’m not sure if that simile makes sense, but it still makes more sense than the movie). The tone jumps around all over the place from teen drama to horror to comedy to action (and none of it matches the tone of the source material). For some reason, there’s also gratuitous gore – the movie’s Light favors writing ridiculous death scenarios for his victims. I could maybe see an decent horror movie that could be re-edited from this movie, but movie that was released was not a decent anything. The actors do an okay job with what they’re given, but often what they’re given seems more contrived than a Disney Channel original movie.
The movie feels like the production team was given a one paragraph summary of the original manga/anime and that’s all the information they had to base their work on. Or maybe they thought that what made Death Note successful was its premise but it’s not. There are a million “what if” stories out there (that’s pretty much the definition of speculative fiction), and the idea of a teenager finding a Death Note is not that powerful on its own. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered if they didn’t stick to the source material if the movie had actually been good or interesting, but because it isn’t, it begs the question of why the people making it decided to explicitly get rid of all the advantages the source material came with.
If you haven’t watched the original anime, please don’t let this travesty of a movie put you off. I can’t comment on the manga since I haven’t read it, but I’m sure it’s excellent as well.