This is the US live-action adaptation of Death Note, brought to you by Netflix. As a whole, this movie is an embarrassing adaptation of Death Note. What makes it embarrassing is that a fan of Death Note isn’t likely to be pleased, while a newcomer to the concept is likely to ask “what was the big deal about the original work, anyway?” What we got was an angsty teenage romance/drama with some supernatural elements instead of a Holmes and Moriarty-esque struggle of titans.
To be fair, the director did indicate that he wanted to do something different… and do something different they did. This was accomplished through a massive (daresay upsetting) set of changes, character, setting, and even genre. That said, there were other changes that I feel perfectly fine about. I don’t mind that it set in Seattle and that the entire cast is distinctly American. Those changes, if executed competently, could have been a really fascinating adaptation of the series, a “what if the Death Note landed in America,” hypothetical. What we got was something of a wholesale slaughter of the core concept and identity of the series, turning it into almost a shambling mockery of itself.
Starting with the characters, they managed to destroy almost all semblance of cleverness or intelligence. We are told that Light is a smart person and later he tells us in passing of something that resembles a god complex, although we never get to see it. Instead, we get something of a whiny brat who is using the Death Note to get into someone’s pants (Mia, the replacement for Misa). Yes, I’m serious. I do have to say that Mia’s character was wildly altered and became something of a blend of the anime’s Light and Misa – she’s the driving force, the “actual” cold-blooded killer. On that note, I do like what they did with her, since I consider Misa’s inclusion in Death Note as something of a tragic mistake. As for L… Instead of a brilliant yet cold detective, we have a little bit of an emotional wreck who, surprise surprise, doesn’t actually seem like a genius.
These changes ended up wildly affecting the plot and the storytelling. As much as it pains me to say, because of the massive changes to Light, L was almost wholly unnecessary in this story. Since much of the movie focuses on Light and Mia’s relationship, all L does is introduce the possibility (and fear) that Light might be caught. This makes Light even more hesitant to kill people (the exact opposite of the anime series). This could have been accomplished with a random police officer or investigative agency, since L’s “brilliance” was to stumble around in a haphazard fashion. That makes sense, of course, since this is not a movie in the detective/drama genre. It’s clear that no one on the writing staff even cast a wayward glance at something like Law and Order, let alone Sherlock Holmes.
Even if we forgive that, we still have a bizarre and awkward teenage romance. Since Mia ends up being the driving force, Light ends up being a killer to impress her more than anything. Even with her trying to stand in the anime Light’s shadow (giggle), there’s still something massively lackluster about the movie. Because of the relationship focus, the movie ends up being so small and trivial in scope – it’s never about reforming the world or about changing society, no matter what they say. But at least the movie ended. It’s over, right? As if to leave a final insult to the viewer, the movie ended in a highly unsatisfying fashion – nothing concluded and it strongly hints of a sequel.
As a post-script, William Dafoe as Ryuk was the best part of the movie. He was so perfect in that role, it pains me that the rest didn’t even try to be on that level.