Screenplay by Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater
based on Death Note by Tsugumi Ôba and Takeshi Obata
Directed by Adam Wingard
1hr, 41min, TV-MA
When I was in the eighth grade back in 1989-90, I read the first book that I had trouble putting down from cover to cover. That book was Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Not long after I finished the book, I found out that they were coming out with a movie adaptation. There was way too much in the book to translate to a feature film. Their solution was to present a story using most of the same characters and following the same basic storyline, yet it played out quite differently. As a result, each one, the novel and the movie, stands well on its own. And they were both good.
So when a new Death Note movie was announced, I was hopeful. Sure, it would be impossible to fit the full story of 37 half-hour episodes into an hour and forty minutes. But there could still be a chance that they could tell a similar and effective story. Right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Admittedly, I have not seen the Japanese live action movie from 2006, the updated Japanese version from 2016, or the Japanese miniseries from 2015. So I don’t know if this one is a fluke or if the others fell short as well. All I know is that the 2017 Netflix movie is an embarrassment. Even leaving out the source material and looking at it as its own entity, this Death Note version plays out like a made-for-TV movie, one that falls well short of its publicity hype. Comparing it to the source material makes it even worse. Although there are some bright spots that worked well, they were far outweighed by the negative.
From the beginning it was less than stellar. And it all began with the introductions. It was set in Seattle, which was wonderful in making the name “Kira” all that much more deceptive. But it also fueled one of my biggest gripes with one of the characters, which I’ll get to shortly.
There was the introduction of who would become Kira, Light Turner (Nat Wolff), who is the Americanized version of Light Yagami. He was first shown as a smart kid who was making money doing homework for other kids at school. However, that was about the extent of his intelligence being evident until the very end of the movie. Unlike Light in the original series who was a master manipulator, he was being manipulated by his girlfriend and the shinigami that the notebook belonged to. This version came off more as a scared kid who second guesses his actions that didn’t like bullies than a mastermind genius that made the original so great.
Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) was also introduced at the beginning and would end up becoming Light’s manipulative girlfriend. Her introduction was as a star cheerleader, and the only emo one with absolutely no school spirit or energy. She’s one to light up a cigarette while out on the practice field. We get it. She’s a “bad girl”. But couldn’t they have introduced her in a way that’s a bit more, you know, believable? Ultimately, Mia being a cheerleader was irrelevant. She was there to force Light to use the notebook when he was having self doubts, and also to use it once herself. She also was an object to show that Light was actually capable of being smart when he killed her. And that’s about it.
At least they did a good job with the shinigami, Ryuk (Jason Liles, voiced by Willem Dafoe). They really took Ryuk to the next level. Visually, the translation to live action worked very well. And instead of simply being on the sidelines watching the show and being entertained by Light’s serial killings, he was an active part. Granted, the big issue I have with his being manipulative, along with Mia, was it weakened the character of Light, who was the main character. Nonetheless, Ryuk was a rare bright spot. And without the explanation of why he likes apples so much as they did in the original, the apples he ate simply became a very creepy calling card.
And then there was L (Lakeith Stanfield). Dear God, there was L. He’s supposed to be a young super detective. Now I understand that there isn’t enough time in the movie to have him make his Sherlock Holmes-like deductions. But that’s no excuse to have him leap to conclusions that make him borderline psychic, like his quickly narrowing down Kira to Seattle. And L is supposed to be an unfeeling, almost callous, individual who rarely had his emotions get the best of him. This version got riled up way too easily, far too easily to be the great detective that his reputation held. He also only displayed the quirks of L in a couple of scenes. The rest of the time, he didn’t have those quirks, making them seem forced when they showed up.
Watari (Paul Nakauchi), L’s handler, was actually a well done character, up until his death when he got redshirted. (Yes, I’m using “redshirted” as a word now. You’re welcome.) His death both showed the situation as being nearly hopeless and contributed to L going off the deep end. That’s when Watari’s part in the story went downhill. Up until then, he was rather intriguing. His death scene seemed a bit… well, off. L hides his identity but his handler doesn’t? Afterward, the story, especially with L breaking down, went from bad to worse.
There were so many other problems with this movie as well, such as there not being any repercussions from Ryuk completely trashing the science lab where Light was serving detention when he first showed up. The school bully being decapitated couldn’t have completely overshadowed that. Then there was the ending. There was no other way for the original to have concluded than the way it did, and it was presented beautifully. The ending to this movie had me scratching my head as to why they chose to end it like they did. Are they really trying to set up a sequel?
To Netflix and the producers of Death Note (including you, Masi Oka): If you’re planning a sequel, please don’t. You’ve screwed things up enough as it is.
If you want to watch Death Note, stick with the original anime or read the manga. The Netflix movie simply isn’t worth it.