Following the underwhelming remake of Ghost in a Shell earlier in the year, the news that Netflix will be giving the popular manga & anime series Deathnote the western treatment was met with concern from many fans. But given Netflix, and their track record for strong TV shows, fans were willing to give it a chance.
Deathnote on Netflix takes the story from Tokyo, to Seattle. A change of setting makes sense, to adapt it to a another market. But more crucially, it also borrows the same characters from the original show, rather than making its own spin-off. This is biggest mistake Netflix made here, and essentially destroyed what could have been a fascinating entry to the Deathnote franchise.
The Deathnote series is built upon the battle of wits between our two rivals, Light & L. Each with their own view upon what Justice really is. This duel of intelligence and deduction was the foundation of Deathnote, and what made it such a enthralling show to all of its fans. Netflix was never going to condense all of the shows drama into a single feature length film, but instead of focusing of the cerebral nature of the show, what we end up with is a one dimensional, dim, cheap Final Destination rip off. With more emphasis on how gory the film can be, rather than building amazing characters the source material provided.
So here, we follow Light Turner, a student who stumbles across the Deathnote, a mystical notepad, in which whoever’s name is written within it, leads to their death. He teams up with fellow student Mia Sutton, in order to rid the world of evil, taking up the name Kira. It’s not long before his actions get him on the radar of the law, and on his trial, is the legendary detective, L, a mysterious figure, who vows to catch Ligth, no matter what.
If Netflix made their own film, using the concept of the Deathnote, taking place in the US, it could have done a decent job. Instead, it takes all the characters, and removes everything that made them so charming. It’s just easier to list the flaws, so here goes!
Light (Nat Wolff)- In the anime, he is depicted as an intellectual, top of his class, popular, yet sick of life, and how crime still continues to live in this so called just society. He is also very calculating, always in control, rarely losing him composure. He does not use the Deathnote for his own personal gain, but his god-complex makes him believe that he is genuinely doing this to create a better world for everyone . In the show, Light is initially uncomfortable with the idea of using the Deathnote, but ends up using it to stop a sexual assault, Turner, uses it because a bully punched him. Light Turner screams, panics, gets pushed around at school, and most importantly, is not smart. He is never in control at any point, and is manipulated by everyone. Also, the Deathnote is simply used as a way for him to get a girlfriend. Great plot. Then there’s his now infamous screaming scene, which pretty much encapsulates the entire movie in 20 seconds. Wolff simply was miscast, and had next to zero charisma or personality for the role of Light. (Then again, it was the role he was given, so blame does also lie elsewhere!)
Mia (Margaret Qualley) – Although in the anime, she is madly infatuated with Light, it’s explained that his actions as Kira, had a consequence of her own life, hence her blind loyalty. Here, she is just the crush of Light, and frankly, is far more interesting as a protagonist! She easily manipulates Light to do whatever she wants, and she is sinply put, a sociopath. She just wants power, and will do anything to get it. It never is explained why shes so deranged, or what lead her to become like this, but hey, she smokes at school, edgy!
Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) – Ryuk is a vital figure, although he is the guardian of the Deathnote, most importantly, he never gets involved with Light, or whatever else is happening. He is simply bored and here to see how everything unfolds. Here, Netflix, seem to be afraid of making Light a true villain, and use Ryuk as the puppet master, who forces Light into all these situations. He is unnecessarily cast as the villain, for no reason. As great as Willem Defoe is in this role, (his motion capture work here is on point!) the character of Ryuk is totally shattered. But at least he eats apples. So that’s something they got right.
L (Lakeith Stanfield) – Probably the character that got the best treatment, but still no means, perfect. Yes L here still possess his eccentric mannerisms and deductive skills, but he is wildly ruled by his emotions here, following a sequence of events in the film, he totally loses it, and goes on a foot chase waving a gun on the streets. L, the master sleuth that he is, should have all possibilities covered, and have a back up for it. Not lose his mind and go crazy. He also reveals his face to the public, which seems a very unwise move, even if he keeps the bottom of it covered, in the show, L only revealed himself as a final gambit.
The characters aside, the film is a mess with its pacing. The cat and mouse nature of the chase between Ligth and L was one of the most capturing parts of the show, here, there is hardly any build up, suspense, anticipation. Instead, L just finds him, reveals his identity almost immediately, chase over. Now we can focus on all the over the top gore and overblown finale!
The relationship between Light and Mia is centre screen here, which is what many feared. We have countless scenes at school, we even have the oh so cliched prom scene. Yes Light went to high school, but that never was the main feature, rather his exploits outside of it. We’re forced into watching a pointless love story in a film that really isn’t made for it.
Deathnote was never really about the deaths of the criminals. In the show, it was a simple heart attack, quick, decisive. Unless Light’s plan suggested otherwise, that was his MO. Here, every death is gratuitously bloody. The deaths occur is wildly hilarious methods, which involve a chain of events, that eventually lead to the demise of the victim. In Final Destination, it worked, here, nope! Director Adam Wingard is much more well known for his work in the Horror genre, which made it a curious choice, for a series that isn’t exactly a horror, more supernatural thriller. This give the entire movie a far more cheesier feel to it, than the perilous, tone of the show.
There’s the 80s Synth-pop soundtrack, even though there’s no sign it’s set in that time, the shows original Gothic tone was perfect for its theme, but here, I guess Stranger Things is a huge thing right now? We see them use the Internet to find the identity of people (very lazy story writing!), so clearly it’s set in modern times! It also focuses on Neon an awful lot, making it look more like Atomic Blonde at times! (Actually maybe Atomic Blonde used less neon….)
All that being said, is there anything to redeem this? Well if you go into this without any prior knowledge of the source, then you’ll enjoy a somewhat cheesy, straight to DVD, horror with cheap thrills. If your a fan, then there is frankly very little to say in regards to positivity. Ryuk (from an aesthetic point) and L are decent. But Light is so eviscerated as a character, it reaches a point where Mia would have been more interesting to follow. Maybe in hindsight it would have been better to create this as a 10 episode show, then again, it may have just been 10 episodes of this!