On the bright side, it’s not awful. It’s not really all that good, either, though. Which is a shame since there’s really a lot of potential in the movie. And it’s even more frustrating since the movie is clearly set up for sequels that I’m not sure it’s gonna get considering the quality of this film. Death Note is Netflix’s latest original movie and is a somewhat loose adaptation of the Manga of the same name written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. In Netflix’s adaptation (written by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater and directed by Adam Wingard), the action is moved from Japan to Seattle and follows Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a bright student, stumbles across a mystical notebook (and the god of death that accompanies it, Ryuk (voice and facial motion capture by William Dafoe, physical actions by Jason Liles)) that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L (Lakeith Stanfield). (As always, this will contain spoilers.)
This movie really had a lot going for it. The tone was (mostly) right; a bit over the top, but mostly okay. The actors did a serviceable job, even if some of their choices were a bit unintentionally hilarious. The pacing was pretty strong, as was the directing and much of the technical aspects. Where the movie falls apart is its character motivations. Light’s motivations are pretty straightforward: his mom was killed by a criminal who was able to evade justice by buying off a jury and Light finds this magical book and decides to use it to kill criminals. A bit cliché and rather bare bones, but it’s there. Ryuk’s motivations leave something to be desired, but again, they’re kind of there. He’s sort of just portrayed as something akin to a trickster god, which is fine, I guess. It’s something. L is still a detective, so his motivation is obvious. The problem is Mia. She’s an interesting enough character, but no time is spent developing her. It’s actually amazing that Margaret Qualley is able to make Mia as interesting as she does, considering Mia is given no background and no motivations for anything she does and exists purely as a love interest/kind of foil for Light.
While normally, this would just be another case of poorly written female characters and not an immediate nail in the heart of a movie, Death Note decides hinge largely on Mia’s actions, which is a problem considering we’re never given any reason why she does the things she does or feels the way she feels. Mia is clearly meant to essentially serve the same purpose in this adaptation as Misa Amane served in the original, but at least Misa had a reason for doing the things she did. There was a reason why Misa was interested in the Death Note, interested in Light, and interested in Light’s mission. However, here, Mia just has no motivations for anything. We first meet her as a cheerleader who stands up for a nerdy kid being bullied and the next time we see her, Light is showing her the Death Note and she’s all giddy to help him (and also spontaneously totally in love with him) and it’s never really explained why she’s so into it. I mean, yeah, punishing criminals isn’t exactly a hard concept to sell people on, but she’s still given no reason why she does what she does other than “criminals are bad?”. She often does things worse than Light and then yells at Light for being too much of a wimp to do them. But her criticisms land flat since we don’t understand why she’s doing them.
Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t just plague Mia. The motivations for all the characters fall a bit flat. None of them are given anything more than the barest of basic motivations if they’re even given that much. It’s kind of funny that L probably has the best character development/motivations as he’s only introduced something like forty minutes into the film, yet there’s more pathos in his character than there are in all the other characters combined. Especially towards the end. They make a pretty bold choice involving L and Watari, and it truly pays off. It’s massively different than how it would have played out in the Manga but it’s some of the best bits of the movie and it makes L the most developed character. Ryuk, on the other hand, especially could have used some developing. There were hints at his background, especially in a book Light was reading the first time he met L, but none of that is ever gone into. It’s not even explained why Ryuk is interested in essentially giving the Death Note to different people. In the original, it came down to boredom, but in the remake, Ryuk isn’t even given that as motivation. He just sort of does it. In general, things just sort of happen instead of the characters making them happen. Some of the actions have consequences, but those consequences really aren’t developed well enough to matter. The threat of Light getting caught by L is the driving force of the latter half of the movie, but even that doesn’t feel as exciting as it should as Light keeps doing thing after thing that should lead to him getting caught (even more than he did in the manga) and it’s just. You can have a good story, but if your characters fall flat, you’re screwed.
Now, I’m not in the business of spending all day comparing this to the original manga or anime. I prefer to view things like this as their own interpretations. As an adaptation, it’s a loose one. It’s not trying to tell the same story at all. So, if you go in expecting to see what you read in the manga, you’re gonna be disappointed. What this is is a totally new story with a handful of familiar(ish) characters and a central premise that’s from the manga. That’s basically where the adaptation ends. I mean, it lifts a few other elements from the manga here and there, but it’s not even close to a direct adaptation, so to treat it like one would be unfair to it. It’s not like this is a Harry Potter movie that was trying to faithfully adapt a book and decided to leave out chunks. This was never a faithful adaptation. It wasn’t designed to be one and it never really advertised itself as one. Hell, it changed Light’s name (honestly, they should’ve changed his name even further, because Light Turner is just a dumb name, but whatever).
So, as its own thing, is Death Note good? No, not really. But it’s damn entertaining. There are a lot of good ideas and good scenes and good moments, but as a film, it’s just a bit uneven. It’s over the top, often cheesy, unintentionally funny, and honestly still somewhat gripping at times. It’s let down by uneven characterization and motivations. The actors mostly do a good job, though Nat Wolff is probably the weakest of the bunch. That’s not to say he’s bad, he just doesn’t really… do much? Some of that’s down to the material, though, since Light never really evolves throughout the film, so there’s not much there for Nat to play with. The other actors do surprisingly well considering how little development or motivations their characters are given. Unfortunately, the film ends on a cliffhanger that’s meant to set up future installments, but I don’t honestly know if it’s gonna get those installments. Critical reaction hasn’t been good, and fans of the manga are not gonna like the film. So, with that in mind, the movie doesn’t really have an ending. It almost does, but then Ryuk (metaphorically) kicks the door and leaves it wide open, making it hard to consider this a standalone film. I fear it’s gonna end up having the same fate as those shows that end on a cliffhanger only to be canceled, and that’s a shame as I’d really enjoy getting to visit this iteration of Death Note again, especially if the characters could be given some life. I don’t regret watching the movie, and I’ll likely watch it again as there were several aspects I really did like, but I can’t say it’s a good movie. It is fun, though.
I give Death Note 2.5 out of 5 wands.