In 2003 the manga Death Note was released unto the unsuspecting world. A story about a notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written into the pages, a high school student (Light Yagami), and a god of death (Ryuk). The story follows Light as he discovers the power of the notebook, and as that power corrupts him. It was a cultural phenomenon during its time, spawning: films, games, books, and a ton of merchandise for your local Hot Topic. Netflix has recently released a new Death Note film, an americanized retelling of the story, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
Let’s get right to it, how does it hold up against the original? Weakly. I enjoyed the film for what it was, but it is not the kinda Death Note I am used to. Let’s go over the pros and cons of the film, and maybe I can make myself clear.
The basic setup: Since this version takes place in the USA, we find ourselves in the setting of Seattle. Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is your run of the mill nerd character in any show, or movie since the Breakfast Club was released. Typically minding his own business until the day the Death Note falls from the sky and lands near him. Shortly after picking it up he is bullied, and forced into detention. This is where Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) comes into the mix. Ryuk goads Light into using the notebook, and that’s how Light starts his killing spree. Light practically can’t wait to tell the girl he has a crush on Mia (Margaret Qualley) about the notebook, and it’s power. Together Light & Mia go on to become the notorious killer of criminals known to the world as Kira. Things seem to be going well until Light’s father, a police officer named James (Shea Whigham) and world renown detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield) start to uncover the clues to Kira’s true identity. It becomes a race between Light and L to see who can figure out each other’s true identity first.
The Pros: I like the style of the film. The overall themes of Death Note are not lost in translation, even if it is weakened. The cast did a great job with what they were given, and Willem Dafoe is kick ass as Ryuk. They got Ryuk right in almost every way possible. I also really enjoyed L’s portrayal in this version. There were some great special effects, and the plot is serviceable, you won’t find yourself getting lost while watching this. If you haven’t seen Death Note in it’s anime, or manga form, this would be a good place to start off, but if you’re a fan of the series already…
The Cons: … This is not for you. This movie misses so many of the key points of Death Note. Light is not threatening, or scary. He’s genuinely a good guy with a murder book. He gets scared, and doesn’t seem to be able to handle the power he’s been given. Light Yagami is one of the smartest people on the planet, Light Turner is practically a whining child in comparison. The thing that made Light in the original Death Note so compelling was that he was a smart, reasonable, and well off person who becomes twisted, and deranged by the power of the Death Note. It was easy to see anyone fill the role of Light, because we all believe ourselves to be good at our core, and the spookiness of the Death Note being able to corrupt someone with such a good life is part of the danger, and fear it brings. Light Turner on the other hand is a kid who has a reason to use the book from act one, scene one. He’s got a rough life, and he’s on bad terms with pretty much everyone who knows him, and everybody else doesn’t seem to know he exists. The main character of the story is flawed, and that puts a damper on the whole film. He’s still clever in his own way, but compared to his japanese counterpart Light Turner is a wet blanket.
The problems continue with Mia. Who basically does all the cool shit in the film. She’s the real brain behind Light’s kira identity. She does the heavy lifting, and she is far more influenced by the power of the Death Note than Light. Mia is basically just using Light the whole film, and it gives off a vibe that the movie is trying to say “Bitches right?” Which is another huge diversion from the original japanese version. Mia is supposed to be the analogue of Misa in the manga/anime. Misa is the totally devoted sidekick/wannabe girlfriend of Light in the manga, while Mia is very obviously using Light in the american version. Maybe they were trying to switch the roles to put a twist on the story, or maybe the writers of the american version were trying to be empowering to women, but the end result made it come across like Light was a fool, and Mia as an opportunist looking to take advantage of the power she could exploit.
The film ends in a way that sets it up for a sequel so maybe some of this will be addressed later on, but Death Note’s Netflix film is forgettable, and average. There are some good things in the movie, but the bad does outweigh the good here. To the people who are die-hard Death Note fans this film would probably be offensive. To the casual viewer it’s meh. So my recommendation is basically this.
Watch it if you are curious, watch it if you haven’t seen anything Death Note before this. If you were a big fan of the original Death Note though, stay away. It’s not the worst american re-telling of a japanese story, but like many before it, it doesn’t compare to what it is emulating.
Share your thoughts with me about the film in the comments, and tell me what you think.