By Olivia Armstrong (@starcadet96)
When Netflix announced they were planning to adapt an American live-action version of the popular manga and anime series Death Note from the early-to-late 2000’s, reactions ranged from mildly excited to rather confused. True, Death Note was undoubtedly one of the most popular anime series from that era in 2006 to 2007 but almost ten years later and with several spin-offs and adaptations that already ran their course years ago, what was there to be gained from adapting it yet again with American actors?
Then the trailer was released and many people were able to see what they were going for, an Americanized version of a popular story with wild deviation from the source material. And following its release, I can say I was prepared for some aspects of what I saw but I certainly didn’t count on how wholeheartedly this adaptation cared so little for its source material or how truly incompetent it was going to be and, for better or for worse, it resulted in one of the more entertaining films I’ve sat through on Netflix this year. I’ll begin by describing the beginning, to give an idea of the tone this film sets.
The film opens with Light Turner (played by Matt Wolff) finding the Death Note in a dreary Seattle landscape and defending himself and his cheerleader crush Mia (whom I will refer to as Lana Del Ray 2.0) against bullies so one-dimensional, they put every 80’s kid’s movie to shame. Considering the random shuffle placement of the soundtrack at many points during the film, I was half expecting to hear “Teenage Dirtbag” playing over the opening scene. After receiving a much-welcomed punch to the face, he then meets Ryuk (played by Willam Defoe) who appears to inform him of what the Death Note can do, complete with chairs and desks flying everywhere and Light’s high-pitched screaming that no teacher somehow hears.
Once Light finds the notebooks power, he decides to test it by straight-up decapitating the bully from earlier (in a scene straight out of Final Destination) and reading the notebook on the bleachers in broad daylight. So, he jumps from angsty edgelord to mass murderer in the space of less than a minute. He then shows Lana Del Ray 2.0 what he can do with the least amount of prompting needed and she immediately is all for killing as many people as they can. You get the feeling that even if these two didn’t find a killer notebook, they probably would have shot up the school the following week anyway. From this point on, they kill as many criminals and possible non-criminals as possible as the police, including Light’s father and the mysterious detective L, begin to close in on them.
It seems almost pointless to compare this film to the original anime series, as it really is an adaption in-name-only. The characters are almost the exact opposite of their original counterparts (Light has gone from charismatic, straight-A student evil douchebag we all love to hate to pasty, white edgelord who mainly uses the Death Note for revenge and getting laid) and the pacing zooms through any elements they decided to keep from the original plot. Also, with her sociopathic thinking and tendency to backstab anyone who gets in the way of her killing, Mia (played by Margaret Qualley) is ironically a far closer adaptation of Light Yagami’s character than Light Turner ever is.
Personally, I do commend this film for taking a different direction to the series. Death Note has been adapted in live action quite a few times at this point and most just end up a retelling of the original anime with half the passion and effort (and a tacked on different ending to appease fans). So, having a similar premise with a different plot didn’t seem like an awful idea. However, the nonsensical turns come at such a breakneck speed throughout the first and last third that it becomes less engaging and more unintentionally funny. The original anime had consistently excellent direction and pacing to distract from the sometimes-ridiculous turns in the story. In this film, the pacing is so awful and the plot and ill-defined characters are mind-blowingly inconsistent.
Mia and Light’s romantic chemistry is non-existent and they come off less like the Bonnie and Clyde the film tries to portray them as and more like two annoying edgy goth kids who get to re-enact their teenage revenge fantasy against people they don’t like. There is an attempt to make Light more sympathetic by absolving him of some of his more heinous acts and chalking it up to Mia’s influence but this only serves to make him look more stupid and only thinking with his trousers when he can’t see how obviously Mia is manipulating him.
The only actor who seems to be having any fun throughout is Willam Defoe as Ryuk. While the special effects aren’t anything great, he actually does look rather cool and creepy and his character stays fairly close to the original series (save for encouraging Light more forcefully to use the notebook). His voice also fits well and he’s definitely putting his all into it. Keith Stanfield as L also stands out for how hard he’s trying to save some of this material. While the character isn’t written well in the slightest, his soft-spoken yet strong delivery scream of a talented actor trying to survive a bad script and there are points where his talent overcomes the shoddy direction (at least in the first half, before his barely-defined character does a complete 180).
However, for all I’ve said about how bad the film is, I feel the need to clarify that it is bad in the absolute best possible way a film can be. It’s so awkward and poorly put together that it makes for a hugely entertaining watch. While the middle portion drags a bit, the first and last third of the film are extremely entertaining, even if for different reasons than intended.
The whole climax is honestly one of the most stupidly fun things I’ve seen all year, beginning with a slapstick chase scene at the homecoming dance and somehow managing to end up on top of a breaking-down Ferris Wheel with Chicago’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” playing in the background (I’m not even kidding) and most of Light’s facial expressions looking like he’s constipated while trying to act emotional. And the last five minutes is probably one of the best nonsensical ass-pulls I’ve seen in a long time, even ending with bait for a sequel. If it’s anything like this first instalment, I will welcome it with open arms.
In conclusion, Netflix’s Death Note completely fails, both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone film due to bizarrely incompetent story-telling, barely-defined characters and just plain trying too hard to be cool and edgy and instead coming off as hilariously stupid. However, if hilariously stupid is your bag, you’ll have an absolute blast as I did watching it with friends (just don’t make a drinking game out of every time something dumb happens. You will die and there will be no crappy loophole established in the last ten minutes that can save you).
For value as a film, it gets a 2/10 but for entertainment value, I give it an 8/10. I’ll simply round that to a final 5/10 overall and I genuinely recommend it, with the understanding of having zero expectations going in and just having a good time riffing on it. Check it out and enjoy the madness for yourself.