For the sake of transparency, there are two things that I have to say: there will be significant spoilers in this article, and I was biased against this movie before I watched it. First of all, I’m skeptical of Netflix Originals in general, despite gems like Mindhorn and Stranger Things as well as my confusion as to what makes an anime series “Netflix Original.” Secondly, in my cursory research of the film, I noticed that screenplay writer Jeremy Slater was responsible for another one of my least favorite movies, the generally negatively received horror movie The Lazarus Effect. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, I have seen the anime adaptation of Death Note before and am a fan of anime in general. From Dragonball Evolution to G-Saviour, and even Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Western film studios have for some reason decided that mediocre anime and manga adaptations are something that can’t be left to Japan. So, because we apparently haven’t been subjected to enough with the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation, Netflix brings us a re-imagining of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note, which I had to watch to satisfy my morbid curiosity.
Within the first three minutes of the movie, I was already regretting my decision. A montage of kids walking down halls, playing football, cheering, and going to class screams at you “Hey, this movie takes place in high school!” Even better, we have our main characters established as rebels by Light selling what should be homework but is labeled as a quiz and Mia somehow getting away with smoking a cigarette in the middle of cheer-leading practice and defiantly crossing her arms while blowing her hair out of her face. Of course, Light is staring longingly at Mia because there needs to be a romance story in every high school movie. After the title burns its way through the darkness, as if to set you up with the false expectation that this will be a horror movie, a stormy wind blows against Mia who somehow is wearing a completely different shirt despite smoking the same cigarette and not having moved at all. Light gets the Death Note, but because there weren’t enough high school cliches, he sees a nerdy boy wearing glasses get shoved outside by some bullies. Mia pushes over the bully, who is just as ready to beat her up, without any real followup plan when Light decides that provoking the bullies even more is a good idea, which gets him promptly knocked down. All of this accompanied by an amount of swearing that could only have been included to bump the film up to an “R” rating had somehow lowered my expectations for the movie even more.
For some reason the movie decides that it needs to become more like a horror movie at around this point. There are jump scares with musical cues, “fake” jump scares like books being slammed down, and Light screeching like a schoolgirl when CGI Willem Dafoe ruins a perfectly good detention room for no reason, which somehow doesn’t get Light in more trouble. The movie completes its transition into a spiritual successor to the Final Destination franchise when the school bully, who they decided needed to be even more stereotypically mean-spirited by playing keep-away with a girl’s book, is hit square in the face with a flying ladder so that his head explodes like a watermelon. After turning on the subtitles because of my inability to understand Light and Mia mumbling their lines, and another attempt at being a horror movie with a jump-scare, we get another Final Destination styled killing and a couple of pointers about the rules from Willem. Light and Mia, who are still essentially strangers, happen to meet and talk about the bully’s death when Light decides it’s a good idea to tell her that he’s a murderer that has a death god at his bidding because he thinks she’s cute. He then kills a criminal in front of her, and because that’s what girls really want in a guy, we get a montage of Mia convincing Light to kill more criminals and of Mia and Light making out a lot more than was necessary to show.
We finally get some welcome scenes away from Light and Mia with the introduction of the detective L and his handler Watari and the beginning of the police investigation, but these are unfortunately interspersed with recurring scenes with Mia and Light which usually boil down to Light showing some kind of hesitation, Mia telling him that he needs to kill more people, and Light agreeing with her. Light’s dad is fine with the investigation at first, but gets strangely angry about his son being investigated considering that he was impartial enough to accept the acquittal of the man who ran over his wife. Light and L meet, which ends up with Light basically confirming L’s suspicions that he is Kira, and although Mia and Light get in a fight about killing people who aren’t criminals, Light’s more than willing to take her back and kill more people when she says that she loves him. In a display of tactical genious, Light then writes down Watari’s name in the Death Note (which somehow works despite him only writing “Watari,” which is obviously a code name like “L”) with instructions to call Light’s personal cellphone to find out L’s name, which leads Watari to go out of the country to find it and inadvertently leaves L in a bad state without his handler. Then we have Light’s father, who was earlier shunned by his coworkers for being a by-the-rules cop, threatening to “fucking kill” L for threatening Light for being Kira.
More spooky horror shenanigans are afoot when Watari investigates the abandoned orphanage and is killed because of Mia’s interference, coming as a surprise to no one except Light. Light gets strangely judgmental of Mia being the only competent killer in their duo, which even includes her being able to sneak up on an FBI agent and knock him out with taser. Light find out that Mia has written his name in the book in order to threaten him into giving her official ownership, while L suffers a mental breakdown and decides to go after Kira with a gun despite his earlier assertions that he does not kill or even carry a gun.
Maybe it’s just because of it being fresher in my mind, but the ending of the movie seemed particularly bad. Light manages to use the Death Note to pull off a plan that lets him survive, but this is after an entire movie of him failing to show that he has any plan-making abilities or even intelligence other than him copying some homework and an off-hand remark by L that he’s “bright,” and the plan only works by breaking a few of the rules already established for the Death Note in this movie. People will die once their name is written in the Death Note other than the one time page burning, so regardless of any “if/then” scenario Mia would have died by the established rules, and the whole part about him landing safely in the water and the page landing in the fire shouldn’t be possible because he can only control a person’s actions before her death, not the laws of physics (which would also fall under the “nothing physically impossible” rule). Light, despite threatening an innocent carnival worker with a gun and having his girlfriend die by falling out of the Ferris Wheel that they were both in, is not only cleared of suspicion to everyone but L but also is lovingly accepted as Kira by his father, the man who was harassed by his coworkers because of his dedication to finding and stopping Kira. L, the world-renowned detective, is kicked out of town because the local police department that was notorious for loving Kira decided that he is wrong, and he has his principles tested again when he finds a page of the Death Note, because the chase scene with the gun obviously wasn’t enough despite him mysteriously calming down enough once he catches Light to give him time to be saved.
The soundtrack of this movie was very hit or miss. The instrumental tracks that resembled horror movie scores were pretty decent, but at times other songs played that seemed like they were meant to provide ironic contrast or dissonance but only ended up as hilariously unfitting. The absolute worst part of the soundtrack was when songs were timed to the action of the film so that the song’s lyrics matched up with what was happening on the screen, with the most heinous offender being the school dance scene. “Don’t Change” by INXS is played and the line “See no evil in all directions” with the police looking for Light on the dance floor; Io Echo’s “Stalemate” has “Flash, light, Polaroid and one cheap glass of wine” play with a pan up into a lens flare and Light drinking at the punch table and lines about playing a game at the same time as Light running out of the dance to contact Watari; the final straw was having Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” say “Watching in slow motion as you turn around” as Light watches Mia dance in slow motion. One of these instances could be counted as cute, but having all of them not only in one movie but happening within the span of a few minutes is going too far.
As far as dialogue goes, it was passable for most of the characters, but anything involving Mia and Light immediately takes a turn for the worse, which goes double for the numerous scenes in which they’re talking alone. I don’t believe I can do it justice, but as an example, this is an excerpt from when Mia first asks Light about the Death Note:
“Death Note? What is it?”
“What is what?”
“Uh, I can’t tell you.”
“Do you really want to know?”
“OK, then I’ll tell you.”
This of course fails to convey the awkward pauses and timing of the delivery, as well as the whole other issue of Light deciding to reveal his magical killing book to a stranger because he has a crush on her.
For the most part, if anything involving Light or Mia was cut out, this could have been a perfectly decent movie. I genuinely enjoyed Lakeith Stanfield as L, and even the differences in L’s quirks and dependence on Watari were interesting. I liked how they had the mind controlled Watari, played by Paul Nakauchi, echo his earlier dialogue with L, and Willem Dafoe proves once again that he is great at portraying evil or spooky characters. The other characters were mostly tolerable despite some weird inconsistencies, but as I mentioned before, I needed subtitles to even understand some of Natt Wolff (Light) or Margaret Qualley (Mia)’s lines because of how mumbled they were, and the awkward dialogue that I can only guess was meant to portray them as Quirky Teenagers™ only compounded the problem.
Barring the ridiculously cheesy gore and the outrageous abuse of soundtrack syncing up with action mentioned before, I have to admit that the visuals were pretty good. The dark atmosphere, especially in any scene where Ryuk made an appearance, was actually very nice and scary, and the motion captured Ryuk himself was surprisingly well designed and blended in naturally with his environment. Although L’s outfit took a little bit of getting used to, I especially liked the candy visuals that surrounded him and the way he interacted with them.
While the majority of the complaints so far have been based on the movie itself and while it has been a number of years since I have seen the anime adaptation of Death Note, I would be lying if I were to say that comparing the two adaptations didn’t affect my judgement. While I was expecting a tense, albeit at times ridiculously over the top, thriller with a cat and mouse game between a supernatural murderer and a super detective’s team of police, what I got was a movie that sometimes tried to be a horror movie and at other times tried to be a thriller, ultimately failing at both. There really isn’t much tension when the main character doesn’t actively do anything to be caught until the last five minutes of the movie, and having that same main character as a “Normal People Scare Me” (taken directly from a poster in his locker) high school outcast who remains indecisive instead of an attractive and well-liked genius who harbors a secret god complex is a lot less interesting. The decision to change Misa from a pop idol to a relatively normal person wasn’t too odd, but what was strange was the romance forced into the story as well as her becoming the main driving force behind the killings because the movie’s Light was too wishy-washy instead of serving the plot in the more interesting way and complicated way that she does in the manga/anime. The plot changes to ending were particularly baffling, with Light’s dad’s sudden acceptance of Kira as his son, L’s emotional breakdown and disgrace, a random bystander now knowing that Light is Kira after helping him escape from L, among other things. It seems like the movie’s ending was set up for a sequel, but it has gone so far off the rails from the anime and manga that one could only guess at where they will decide to go from here if by some cruel twist of fate that sequel were ever approved.
On a more positive note, as I’ve said before, I think that some some of the new aspects of the movie’s L are interesting and welcome additions. Ryuk being a bit more sinister and hands-on in his approach to guiding Light with the Death Note are also changes that, while one could argue are good or bad, are relatively benign compared to some of the other decisions made in this film. I think that the change of setting could also have worked if so many other changes weren’t made, although I’ll leave commentary on the choice of actors to those more qualified than myself. Additionally, I do think that the changes in the soundtrack were at times appropriate to the new tone that the movie was trying for, it had no chance of standing up to how dramatic the anime’s soundtrack could be.
If it weren’t already apparent, I would strongly suggest that you do not watch this movie. It’s particularly bad if you have any type of knowledge about the anime or manga, but even if you don’t, this is the type of film that fails at both being a good movie and at being an enjoyable movie. If you want to watch Willem Dafoe as a creepy villain, go watch the 2002 Spider-Man to see him as the Green Goblin; if you want a horror movie or a thriller, Netflix has many other better options at its disposal; if all you wanted was Death Note and you won’t be satisfied until you get some, Netflix has the entirety of the anime series available right now. The anime series itself has its own faults, and certainly is not for everyone, but I can’t think of a single situation in which I’d recommend watching Netflix’s movie adaptation in place of it or otherwise.