Netflix’s ‘Death Note’ disappoints, leaving little trace of original series

Nat Wolff stars as Light in Netflix's new live-action film adaptation of the anime "Death Note"
James Dittiger Netflix/Courtesy
"Death Note" | Netflix

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Grade: 1.0/5.0

In a stunningly uninspired display of neon colors and ill-fitting music, Netflix’s film adaptation of the popular Japanese anime series “Death Note” falls flat. It eliminates much of the charm and intellectual aspects of the original series, leaving a bland, overdramatic shell of the anime.

The movie opens on a high school in Seattle, as Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is introduced as a “defender of the weak” while breaking up a school fight. Light quickly takes this role to a psychopathic level as he gains the ability to kill anyone by writing their name in a booklet called the Death Note, with one caveat: he needs to have seen the target’s face as well.

Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), a Japanese death god who initially drops the Death Note in front of Light, and Mia (Margaret Qualley), Light’s romantic interest, become entangled in a scheme to gruesomely kill all the criminals of the world. They take credit for the murders under the pseudonym “Kira,” and cover their tracks to prevent being caught by genius detective L (Lakeith Stanfield).

Disappointingly, Light shows little character development for the rest of the movie — instead, he remains an awkward, revenge-driven teenager with a complete lack of chemistry with every other character he interacts with.

Much of Light’s lack of depth can be attributed to Mia, whose one-dimensional personality somehow still manages to overshadow Light’s. She ends up being the more deranged of the couple, driving Light’s decisions and the actions of his alternate persona, “Kira,” as well. Light is boring and static while Mia is irrationally angry — a departure from the anime, where we are able to see Light spiral into insanity, driven by an unrealistic goal of perfection. Instead, in the film, he’s driven by a controlling and forced romance.

One of the few redeeming qualities of the film lies in Lakeith Stanfield and Willem Dafoe’s portrayals of the characters of L and Ryuk. They both effectively translate the unique mannerisms and voices of their respective characters from the anime to the film. Though L and Ryuk are generally pleasant to watch, their performances are unfortunately not enough to redeem the unoriginal dialogue and embarrassingly over-dramatic action sequences.

Ryuk is introduced in a scene so ridiculous, it seems like a parody of itself Light’s screams certainly evoke more humor than terror, as he hides under a desk after seeing the death god for the first time. DaFoe still manages to be a highlight of the film, conveying a dark amusement at the deterioration of the human world through a perfectly chilling laugh.

Lakeith Stanfield also delivers a captivating performance as L — the genius, Sherlock Holmes-esque, socially reclusive detective — who is pitted against Light and Mia for most of the film. Stanfield is effective as an eccentric and brooding, but extremely observant, adversary to Light.

This rivalry between Light and L at the heart of the anime is largely lost in the movie remake, as Light never seems smart enough to keep up with his rival. He instead appears simply irrational — a byproduct of a his crazed relationship with Mia. Thus, rather than showing the dynamic between Light and L outsmarting each other, the film relies on lackluster action sequences that feature gaudy slow-motion or overly gruesome violence for no real purpose.

“Death Note” has already been criticized for “whitewashing.” In the process of Americanizing the story, the Japanese lore behind the Shinigami — the death gods — is completely ignored. Granted, the movie doesn’t have nearly as long as the anime series to really develop a story behind the realm of the death gods, but the word “shinigami” isn’t even mentioned — leaving Ryuk only tenuously connected to the larger story. It acts as a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the role Japanese culture plays in the storyline.

The fact that the film features several changes — in character motivations, plot points and other details from the original anime — in and of itself is not the issue. It’s expected that an adaptation would make major changes. The issue with “Death Note” is that the changes result in flat characters and a much more streamlined plot, with less of the unique aspects that made the original series so popular. On top of that rather dreary plot, the ending — whether its ambiguity was meant to be evocative or open-ended in anticipation of a sequel — failed to provide at least a satisfying closure to a mediocre movie.

As a whole, the film ends up not paying adequate tribute to the original spirit of the series, nor engaging new viewers as a standalone film.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].