Originally published on Trevor Trove on October 16, 2017
TL; DR(eview) – For me, Death Note fails as a movie because it tries to cash in on the property’s audience and popularity while also serving as a pale imitation of why it became so popular and built an audience in the first place. Aside from a few moments where the film really invoked its anime inspiration, Netflix’s version features almost as many clichés as the movie’s body count.
One of the reasons I chose Death Note as the first anime to tackle was the tie-in to the Netflix movie. Starting the series a little while before the film debuted, I knew I’d have a built-in comparison I could evaluate across my Saturday content and my Monday content. The fact that friends of my enjoyed it and that I recognized the name even prior to the Netflix announcement were actually kind of secondary (though ultimately my friend Christian did also provide a compelling case for it). With such a revered anime as the baseline, comparisons were bound to be drawn between this iteration and previous entries.
And compared to the anime, the Netflix live action Death Note is a significant letdown. Academic and athletic superstar Light Yagami is swapped out for Nat Wolff’s Light Turner (with the setting being shifted from Japan to Seattle). Where Light Yagami was an overly calculated, often stoic individual, Light Turner is immediately introduced as a hothead who “cheats” for others by doing their homework (but the prop designer and director of photography very clearly show him handing off a paper that’s half blank). Light Yagami envisioned using the Death Note – a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written on its pages – to build a new world without crime and evil. Light Turner uses it to win over the world’s most emo cheerleader since Eliza Dushku’s turn in Bring It On.
Mia (Margaret Qualley) serves as Light’s love interest and is almost entirely unrecognizable from her manga/anime-based inspiration Misa Amane. Mia is established with almost as much contempt as Light; standing unenthusiastically atop a couple cheerleaders and then immediately smoking during practice just to show how “edgy” she is. Light almost immediately tells her about this new power he has acquired and she actually winds up being the one who wants to do away with evil in the world. I would say it was an interesting role reversal from the Misa in the anime who obsessed over Light and served his every wish but the film treats it as a half measure – like most of its ideas – and doesn’t commit to it enough to give it any real weight.
Unsurprisingly, two of the rare bright performances come from the performers who were kept closest to their inspiration: Lakeith Stanfield’s L and a vocal performance from Willem Dafoe as the death god Ryuk. Stanfield plays L with many of the same awkward antisocial tendencies fans of the anime will recognize. He is easily the closest to his wunderkind anime counterpart and his relationship with caregiver Watari (Paul Nakauchi) is far more touching than any moments Light and Mia have together. Ryuk on the other hand strays slightly from his anime counterpart – who I view as more of a passive trickster/observer – by leaning heavily into a near-obsession with the gory deaths this iteration is all too eager to show. But Willem Dafoe’s creepy delivery is perfectly suited for the character and the demon’s design, wisely kept mostly in the shadows to remain unsettling from beginning to end, is a wonderful realization of the original character’s otherworldly feel.
It almost feels unfair to continue comparing the film to the anime as the team clearly wanted to put its own spin on the story but they cling to poor imitations of so much of the base material that it’s unavoidable (in the same way comparisons between Star Trek Into Darkness couldn’t escape comparisons to The Wrath of Khan due to how much the former leaned into the latter). If Director Adam Wingard really wanted to put his own spin on the idea and tell an American-ized rendition of the story, they should have started fresh and told a new story without Light and L. Because the fascinating dynamic of the original is just how evenly matched the two are in their cat and mouse game. But this Light is so sloppy and obvious in his behavior that of course L is going to identify him as Kira (the public personification of the mysterious power killing criminals across the world). Only in the film’s closing moments does Light Turner show anywhere near the level of intellect that Light Yagami possesses and by then, it is far too late to matter.
The film also plays fast and loose with the rules of the Death Note itself, adding arbitrary rules at one point to spark conflict between Light and Mia, while at the same time creating the biggest possible plot hole by allowing a shortcut to one of the notes main rules about needing the victim’s name (MINOR SPOILER WARNING: If Light can control Watari with only that name, why can’t he just write “L” in the damn book?!?!?!”). I understand that adjustments were always going to be needed to cut down what is probably the first third of the anime into a standalone film but these were the wrong changes to make.
The best compliment I can give the Netflix version of Death Note is that it got me to watch the anime version of Death Note, which – despite my issues with the series’ back half – was a far better use of my time than this poor imitation of a really interesting idea.