So Netflix decided to do a live action adaptation of Death Note and decided in the process to Americanise it. I could write a review where I tear this apart because it is genuinely nothing like the original and they’d have been better off just creating all new character names and just saying this was based on the story of Death Note, but that isn’t actually fair to this movie. Yeah, it is nothing like the original. Character personalities, motivations, relationships are all totally different and most could not be favourable compared to the original characters. The characters are Americans for the most part. The whole story here is told in 100 minutes with sequel bait at the end. Got that out of the way. Now I’m going to review the movie.That said, it will be impossible to review this when I am a fan of the original anime without reference to it.
I really expected going in that I was going to hate this movie. I hoped I wouldn’t, but kind of knew deep down that no matter what Netflix did, I was not going to see it particularly well. I love the original Death Note. I love the clever play between Light and L and how that builds over half a season. I’ve watched Death Note movies before and the short run time always, always hurts the tension and the story. So imagine my surprise when I actually liked this movie. Admittedly, the first watch through I didn’t. I was too busy declaring that none of it was ‘right’ or the way ‘it should be’ but you know, that isn’t exactly fair. So I chucked my preconceptions out the window and watched it again without any thought of what it was supposedly adapting. And you know, there’s actually an all right kind of story going on here. It just isn’t the story fans were hoping for.
See, this isn’t a psychological thriller anymore. What this movie focusses on is the horror and fear of being given power, thinking your are in control, and then seeing it all spiral horribly out of control. And from that point of view it works beautifully. Yep, Light isn’t anywhere as smart as the Light most people know and love. This character would definitely have benefitted from just having a totally new name and just be another random guy that Ryuk dropped the note for. That doesn’t make him a bad character. He’s an American teenager who has issues with the notion of justice due to his mother’s death and what he perceives as his father’s failings. He’s also seen injustice in the school system with how bullying is dealt with (or not dealt with). When given a taste of power, he uses it and some of his uses are incredibly reckless and not particularly well thought out because he is impulsive.
What this gives us is a much faster plot line. One that doesn’t set up a slow rise in the popularity of a killer who the public give a name to that he then assumes. Light chooses his own name and promotes it through those he kills. He builds a following and he does so quickly and with efficiency that allows us to move right into the phase of Light being pursued by L.
However, before I get into that I need to address Mia. Mia is both a blessing and a curse to this movie. She provides a fairly decent plot twist, she drives the story forward when it might otherwise stagnate, she allows Light to not inner-monologue because he has a partner in crime more or less from the beginning. However, her own motives, other than apparently she gets off on killing, are never explored. We know nothing of her back story, her history, or anything about her other than she’s a cheerleader and now she thinks she has found a purpose. Also, she makes Light seem incredibly stupid because he basically reveals the note and all its secrets to her because he literally just wants to impress the girl. It is a cheap plot move and while it works at moving us forward you really don’t feel like that was a satisfying way for the story to get kicked into gear.
Basically, this is Mia and Light’s story and how the power of the Death Note changes the both of them and ultimately changes their relationship throughout. The whole L and the police thing is a secondary concern to what is going on with Mia and Light. So if Mia had just been given some decent development, this movie could even be elevated from just all right to actually quite good and yet it never quite manages that because as much as this story wanted to take Death Note in a new direction, it couldn’t quite commit.
So here is L. He isn’t L as you know him, anymore than Light is the character you know, but he is L. He is in hot pursuit of Kira and he leaves false trails and ruthlessly uses whoever he has to in order to track down the killer. But this is a far more emotive and unstable L (though I guess L was always a little unhinged) and by the end of the story the L we see has lost any ability to think clearly or logically. He is angry and grieving and his actions take on a rashness that we would never have accepted from the anime version, but here is works well because the story makes one fairly critical change early on.
When L goes on TV to goad Kira, Light doesn’t rise to the bait. Light’s core personality has been changed sufficiently that it makes sense for his character to not want to harm the innocent, even if they are calling him out (something this movie maintains throughout its entire run). Because of that change, there’s never really a cat and mouse game between the two. Sure, L is pursuing Kira and he figures out that Light is Kira, but Light’s issues are all around Ryuk, Mia and the morality of using the note itself. That’s where the story and the conflict are. L is basically side story material that may later get development should this ever get a sequel.
I have to say, while I don’t like any of these characters as much as the original cast, and the story is nowhere near as clever or interesting as the original, for a released on TV horror it works relatively well and can certainly keep you entertained for it’s fairly short run time. The deaths are at times an excessively gory and a few of the set ups will remind you of a Final Destination film, but basically everything comes together and the final confrontation and explanation is satisfying enough.
When it comes to recommending this though, pretty much I recommend it to non-anime fans who like horror. If you’ve already watched Death Note, it is really likely that all this movie will do is annoy you. However, if you haven’t and you like the idea of guy finds book that can kill people, you’ll probably have an alright time with this. That said, given fans of the anime probably aren’t the best audience for this, the writers really should have just committed to new audience, new story and ditched the unnecessary remnants that just serve to clutter up an otherwise interesting plot. As an adaptation of Death Note, this is pretty terrible if you are after the tone or feel of either than manga or the anime. As an American teen horror movie with a bit of a supernatural edge to it, this isn’t dreadful and actually has some quite entertaining moments.
So, I’m surprisingly okay with this movie and wouldn’t mind a follow up. I just wish they hadn’t called it Death Note.
Thanks for reading.
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