So, I wasn’t planning on doing a Bad Movie Night Review about this movie, but it’s been on my mind a lot these last few days, and I really feel like I have some stuff to get off my chest. So… here goes.
This movie was, really, not very good. There. I said it.
Now, before I go on, a little disclaimer. I have watched the anime series at least twice but I’ve never read the manga. Perhaps, if I had, I’d be tempted to do a my very first Book 2 Screen review, based on a manga series – examining the storytelling devices used in a medium that is both written and visual (like a comic or manga) versus a visual and auditory medium like film… Hmmm… stick that in your cap – come back to it later, Jackie.
Anyway, I enjoyed the anime series but I am not super passionate about it they way I am with other properties. I was intrigued when I heard about the Netflix movie, despite my general assumption that American adaptations of anime properties are generally trash. I saw the trailer and was a little concerned by the casting choices but, still, I was willing to give it a chance. I wanted to see how Netflix; a company that has, at the very least, been producing some interesting content lately – would tackle the world of Death Note. Sure, there are Japanese live-action films, but other than the fact that they are more loyal to the source material – well, let’s just call a spade a spade here. Between the budget, the effects, and acting in those films… yeah, they’re not so great.
So, I was curious. What would this film do? It looked good. And by that I mean it literally looked good – visually. I wasn’t sure about everything else, but the effects seemed decent. It was definitely going to be an aesthetically pleasing film. But how would it tell the story?
Turns out the answer to that question is – badly.
Let me preface this one more time, just in case you are expecting a fangirl’s rant about how they destroyed this masterful anime. I enjoyed the original anime series, but I am not a super fan. Spoiler alert: I found Light’s God complex infuriating. With each masterfully, dirty trick he played, with each innocent person he destroyed in order to continue enacting his self righteous justice, I grew more and more eager to see him brought down to earth. But then he killed L, and I was ready for the m*f-er to die. As they introduced new characters to go against him, I lost interest. It wasn’t the same. Despite seeing it twice, I really have problems remembering how the rest of the series plays out. All I remember is being pretty giddy when he is finally outwitted and breaks down like a little punk. I know I’m in the minority on that opinion, as most people I know, were really disappointed in the way Light went out, but – meh. I found seeing him crumple, very satisfying.
I say all this because, it effected how I responded to Light’s character and the direction they decided to take it, in this film. Yes, I disliked all that Light became in the anime, and because of that, there was a small part of me that guiltily enjoyed when this new version of Light screamed like a little girl upon seeing Ryuk for the first time. But the other part of me, hated how completely wrong they got the character. I hated how they justified their odd casting choices and sort of rubbed our noses in it. (Seriously, I think they put more thought and did more research figuring out a way to justify why a white kid from Seattle gets the nickname “Kira” than they put in the entire rest of film).
There was a lot, I really didn’t like about this film as a casual fan of the anime. However, for the sake of this blog, I will try to set the anime vs. adaptation issues aside as much as possible and, instead, focus on the four big issues I had with it, as a film; Identity, Tone, Pacing, and Plot holes.
One of the big issues I had with the way they told this rendition of Death Note was that I couldn’t pin down what kind of story they were trying to tell. Was this story meant for anime fans? High school drama fans? Horror fans? Action fans? Cat and mouse thriller fans? Who was it meant for, and what was it trying to be?
When the film started, I was immediately thrown off by the slow motion, high school life montage, featuring the ‘kids with attitude’ – Light, the emo genius doing people’s homework for cash, and the Mia, the emo cheerleader who does the stunts but doesn’t smile, and smokes cigarettes right in the middle of practice because she’s so ‘beyond it’. The anime never made Light’s high school life a focus. So I wondered, what audience were they speaking to, when they decided to spend so much of the movie’s run time at the school, and in Light’s house with Mia? Certainly, they weren’t speaking to me.
The film also introduced scenes of shocking, gory death, and action sequences, whereas the anime was more cerebral and subtle. Was this for the sake of catering to an American audience? If the concern was that an intellectual game of cat and mouse wouldn’t get enough viewers excited, why bother adapting the property in the first place?
The film suffers because it tries to take elements from the original anime, but then incorporates too many original ideas that don’t mesh well. The result is a film that feels like a mashup of a bunch of things rather than one coherent thing. Within half an hour of watching, I had surmised that this version of Death Note was some kind of ungodly amalgamation of the The Breakfast Club and Final Destination set in the same universe as Death Note but with none of the same characters.
So what direction is this film trying to go in? I’m not sure. And apparently, neither does the film. This becomes apparent in the movie’s constantly shifting tones. One second, it feels like a coming of age school drama, filled with angst and ‘adults just don’t understand’ themes, the next second, it’s pure horror, and then someone cracks a joke.
To be fair, in anime, there often are very abrupt tonal shifts, which can be displayed artistically or by use of a joke or witty word play in the middle of serious or emotional moments. However, this was never really the case in the Death Note anime, and these kinds of shifts don’t typically work in a live-action medium.
For example, one of the scenes I laughed at the most, was when Light and Ryuk are watching one of the press conferences. As usual Ryuk is taking jabs at Light, and in a turn of events, an irritated Light snaps back, “Shut the f*ck up, Ryuk”. I laughed really hard, simply because it was so unexpected and quick. Till that point, they had never established that kind of dynamic in their relationship, and Light said it so quickly, I burst out laughing. However, as I said, it didn’t fit the character or the situation at all, which had been building in intensity. It felt more like an ad lib. Something that the actor, (who is probably a more light hearted person) had been thinking and wishing he could say during the scene. A quick quip that was amusing to the crew and allowed to stay in the film. I laughed when it happened, but it didn’t work.
There is a dark, almost comic nature to the kind of gruesome, over the top gore involved in this film; from decapitation, to death by bus, to electrocution. And while it’s an amusing visual, it conflicts with the serious and philosophical questions the premise of this story should be evoking. The film touches upon these questions briefly at the beginning but often casts them aside in favor of a catchy visual plug or scene of Light and Mia making out all over the death note. Still, the nature of the property being adapted, is steeped in these questions, and they try to make themselves heard – which attributes to the constant tonal shifts.
Is this a deeply psychological drama about a young man with the power to become God with the stroke of a pen? A brilliant, and cunning sociopath who revels in his newfound power and will do anything to keep it? Or is this an angsty, teen, slasher film starring a misunderstood teen who just wants to do what’s right, bring the truly wicked to justice, and get the girl? Is it a dark comedy, or chase movie? The film constantly shifts tone to favor all of these scenarios. If the film can’t make a decision of what kind of movie it’s trying to be, how are we supposed to?
Your Pace or Mine?
As with many adaptations of written mediums, filmmakers have a hard time condensing hours upon hours of content into a concise, feature length script. Parts need to be omitted or re-worked so that they can move at a faster pace. However, this film had major issues concerning where it took it’s time, what it chose to focus on, and how it displayed the passage of time.
The film dedicates a lot of time into it’s development of Light’s character – development which is completely and irreconcilably different than his anime counterpart. He’s book smart, gets bullied, has a crush on Mia, get’s in trouble after trying to be a hero at school, has a dead mom and daddy issues, etc. They also spend a lot of time developing his and Mia’s relationship. They have kinky sex after a kill, cuddle while choosing victims, and argue over the decision of whether or not to kill the people hunting him. People including his own father.
By comparison, the actual death note, and the Light vs. L battle of wits is given very little focus. There is one montage of him actually writing names in the death note and people being killed. There is also very little interaction between Light and L before they have the scene where L confronts him in the diner, saying that he knows his identity. The most quintessential aspects of Death Note are over before they’ve even really started.
Even the more calculating side of Light, which does get dragged out a bit (thanks to the 2 day, mind control rule) ends somewhat flat and results in nothing. Light manages to get the name of L’s handler and sends him on a mission to find L’s real name, so he can kill him. They spend more time than they should, following this cross country trip, but there is no pay off. He finds the file but is shot dead before he can give Light the name. The whole time, I kept wondering how much cooler this would have been if they dedicated that time to developing a game of tit-for-tat between Light and L instead; where Light tries to get close to L to learn his name, and L tries to confirm once and for all, whether or not Light is Kira. Two or three scenes would have been enough. But no. They chose instead to shift between scenes of Watari traveling, L loosing his damn mind, and Light being a complete tool.
I also found myself having a hard time pinning down how quickly time was moving. In one scene, Light’s dad is a widowed cop. Two scenes later, he’s suddenly heading up the Kira task force in Seattle. In one scene, Light is writing names and making out with Mia, in the next he’s a worldwide sensation with followers and people holding candlelight vigils in his honor. But how much time passed? We get no sense of how long it has been from one scene to the next. Weeks? Days? We don’t see season’s change or anything so I’m guessing it happens pretty friggin fast.
I can appreciate how hard it is to have to cut down content for the sake of adaptation, but come on! This film felt very rushed, often skipping over questions that a casual viewer would want to know, all in favor or spending more time on original plot threads that don’t fit in the story. The result is a jumbled, confusing mess of a story, that constantly speeds up, then pumps the breaks over and over again.
Digging Yourself into a Plot Hole
The Netflix adaptation of Death Note comes with many new rules. In fact, at one point, Light comments, “Just how many rules are there?”. It is unsurprising then, that with the tonal inconsistencies, the identity issues, and the general lack of understanding of the source material, combined with a slew of new “made up” rules, that plot holes would emerge.
If they don’t have the heart-attack rule, and every death is some creative elaborative set-up, how do police know they are looking for one guy rather than a group of people who wait for bad people to die and just place a KIRA calling card on the scene? Other than the name Kira, there is no consistency in the way in which each victim dies.
If the death note works for anyone who writes a name into one of the pages of the book, why the hell is Mia obsessed with Light officially relinquishing the death note to her? It seems totally unnecessary.
Light manages to get control over Watari, by just writing his single name Watari… but that can’t possibly be his full name, can it? I mean, yes, he gave Light’s dad a business card that just said, Watari on it, but he had to have a full name before he was just Watari. If that’s the case, shouldn’t he have needed that full name to get control over him? If not, it would seem completely plausible that he could kill L with just the name ‘L’ since it’s the only name he’s known since he was taken from the orphanage as a child.
Speaking of Watari, why the hell didn’t he just order Watari to shoot L in the face or something? Seriously, he had control over L’s handler for two full days and he sends him on a trip to Montauk? To find a name? That might not even exist? Why? Just friggin have him perform some kind of murder suicide or something. He’s with L ALL THE TIME!
Also, if the death note is so hax that you can just write in that much control over a person,
- Why didn’t Mia just write that ‘Light turns over the death note to Mia and then commits suicide’ or something like that rather than some vague ‘Light’s heart stops beating at midnight’ bullshit and a threat. Then she’d get the death note, she could burn the page, sparing Light’s life is she so chooses and she wins. The end.
- Why didn’t Light do the same thing? Rather than the long, elaborate ferris wheel scenario he wrote down in the death note, why not just have write something like “Mia burns the page in the death note with Light’s name on it before broadcasting to the world that she is Kira and jumps to her death before police can apprehend her.” I dunno, something simple. Seriously.
Finally, if the final scenario was so carefully planned out in the death note, including Mia’s death at the ferris wheel, why did he act surprised when she took the book? For who’s benefit was he doing it? If he wrote it in the death note, that meant that she was going to do it, right? So why act upset with her for actually taking it? He said something along the lines of “I was hoping you loved me enough not to do it” but, again, if he wrote that scenario in the death note, that means he was influencing her actions. Who, then, was he making the big display for? The audience? Her?
And did he just forget about the page in the calculus book? I mean, he told L about it, but in all his scheming, he didn’t have the foresight to have someone retrieve that extra death note page? I mean… that’s a huge friggin oversight…
Not To Beat A Dead Horse But…
This film is a perfect storm of wrong when it comes to adapting a beloved anime series into a live-action, American-ised feature film. It’s not comically inept in the same way that movies like Dragonball Evolution or Speed Racer were. It had some great elements in there. It was visually appealing, and Willem Dafoe was actually quite good as Ryuk. Keith Stanfield is a talented actor, but didn’t fit as L. He might have been a convincing Light, if they were willing to ditch the high school angle and just make the character an intellectual who develops a God complex. As it stood, Stanfield’s rendition of L was a hodge podge of character quirks from the anime and some completely new, mentally unstable character created specifically for this version.
But whatever good is there is overshadowed by an onslaught of just… bad decisions. It’s oddly paced, rushing through important detailed and interesting story threads only to sit and dwell on stupid teenage drama. It feels like it’s trying to be every thing for every one, and succeeds and nothing. It is Death Note in title only, as the characters from the source material are completely unrecognizable – not just in appearance (as the fanboys and fangirls that cried tears of blood over a Black guy playing L liked to point out) but in characterization. The theme is weak, and the protagonist does not move the story along at all. He simply seems to be manipulated either by Ryuk or by Mia for the entire movie or forced into action by L’s emotional outbursts. The prevalence of 80’s rock music makes no sense, since it doesn’t take place in the 80’s, the homecoming dance scene was stupid and boring and ineffective…
This movie just wasn’t that good.
I was intrigued at first but as it got closer, I’d lost interest in seeing it. I had other things I wanted to see and review, but my boyfriend made me watch it. And when it was over I just shrugged and tried to go on with my life. But he made me discuss how I felt about it, and I was forced to confront all the issues I had, and I started to get mad. It’s so weird!
I gave up on it as an adaptation about five minutes in to the film and just watched it blankly, forcing myself not to compare it to the anime at all, and when it was done I was kinda confused and just felt ‘meh’ about it. But the more I think, the worse it gets. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?
My initial thoughts proved to be correct. Live-action, American, adaptations of anime are, generally, trash. The live -action, Japanese, adaptations are more faithful but still just as bad. Why did I watch this? Why?
This movie can kick rocks.