Adapting stories from manga has never been well done in North America. Death Note isn’t going to change that fact either. It’s not the condensing of the story that is even the biggest problem here. Death Note is simply not a good film from any angle, and fans of the series are going to wind up being very upset at this latest attempt at a North American try.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an intelligent but lazy high school student, dreaming of the attractive cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley) while avoiding the local bully. One day he finds a book on the ground with Death Note emblazoned across the front. Dropped by a death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), the book allows the holder to simply write the name of a person and they will die within less than a minute. Writing a cause of death is also an option, and after a terrifying introduction, Light is instructed to use the Death Note to test its power. Light decides to use it to rid the world of crime, and quickly uses it to bring Mia into his life. Mia has more ambitious and frightening ideas for the Death Note, and together they set out like a mystical Bonnie and Clyde.
Growing a following with the public and dubbing himself Kira, Light attracts the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield), a quirky young man who has helped police solve numerous crimes. L is determined to put a stop to Kira, and Light will do anything to remain anonymous. As the two slowly come closer to crossing paths, Light will have to become rather creative to not only keep the Death Note, but to also keep it away from anybody who he believes will use it inappropriately.
Trying to jam the rather intricate and lengthy story of Death Note into a film running under 2 hours is impossible, so it’s obvious that some things will have to be edited out. Unfortunately, the trio of writers; Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, have done away with everything that was great about the original story. The cat and mouse game between Light and L is almost non-existent in favour of focusing more on the relationship between Light and Mia, because what’s a great North American film without a pointless love story.
In fact, Light and L never really seem to be the highly intelligent characters that they really should be. L is all quirks and ticks, played way over the top by Stanfield, while Light is a mopey slob, played sluggishly by Wolff. Instead of being complex individuals, these two characters have been reduced to one single idea. The same goes for Mia, who you could place into any ’90s, angsty, slacker, witchcraft movie and never notice the difference. It doesn’t help that Qualley gives the character little personality beyond slightly crazed.
Willem Dafoe is the only person who fits perfectly. He’s a fantastic choice to voice Ryuk, but that character is limited to lurking in shadows here and there without ever really getting to take part in the film. It’s not Mia and Light who should be the focus. It’s Ryuk and Light, and that’s not something that’s happening here. At the very least, Dafoe makes his moments shine, and they’re the true highlight of Death Note.
Director Adam Wingard can’t even pull off making a film that is visually interesting here. Death Note looks as flat as its acting and story and only offers something interesting to look at when it’s swiping death scenes out of Final Destination. Of course, it’s been said that second unit director Jason Eisener is responsible for the elaborate moments where what Light writes down in the Death Note comes to pass. Perhaps if Eisener had directed the rest of the movie, it would have at least been pleasing to the eye.
Throw in some awkward and eye rolling song choices, a slew of pointless set pieces (like an entire sequence taking place at the prom for no reason whatsoever) and a couple of false endings, and you’ve got the latest terrible adaptation of anime and manga. If this doesn’t put an end to manga adaptations, nothing will.
Is Death Note Essential Viewing?
Not in the slightest. It’s terribly acted, written, and paced. It loses everything that was good about the original story and replaces it with one tired cliché after another. It doesn’t even look good. The only thing good about this movie is that it may get people to actually go out and pick up the original story it was based on. Now that’s something worthy of your time.
Death Note is available for streaming on Netflix beginning Friday, August 25, 2017. Check their website for more information.