Movie Review: Death Note (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Adam Riley 23.08.2017

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Death Note (UK Rating: 15)

The Death Note series is well loved with good reason; a dark and smart masterpiece that is still one of the best anime to introduce non-anime viewers to this day. The original manga has already received an anime adaptation, along with Japanese live action movies - which arguably have the best ending - and even a Japanese drama series. A Hollywood adaptation has long been on the cards, much to the fear of fans who expected the same subtle handling of the source material that Dragon Ball previously received. Warner Bros. held the rights for many years and originally planned a series of films, but those rights lapsed and Netflix was quick to snap them up. Fans hoped for a Netflix series but instead got this 100 minute movie. Netflix original creations often deliver high quality, but can it do the same for Death Note? This live action adaptation comes courtesy of Netflix and will be available to stream from 25th August.

For some, any adaptation is bad news. The break away from the thing they love is automatically seen as a negative. Those coming in wanting a completely faithful adaptation of the original, and will be completely unhappy with anything that breaks away from any plot point, would be best giving this a miss. It is a very different story with only a few characters and plot points that remain the same.

Set in modern day America, this version of Light is Light Turner, a kid with some similarities to the original. Light is shown to be a smart kid who seemingly has no issue with selling his skills filling in American Football players' homework for a handful of bills. His father is still an important cop in the Seattle PD, his mother tragically has passed away after a child suffering from 'affluenza' and drunk driving collided with her. The youth got off scot free. The story opens with the Death Note quite literally falling at Light's feet and he's quick to use it to avenge his mother before moving on to a similar plan to the original - punishing criminals and deciding to become the "God of the New World." He gains an accomplice in a beautiful young girl and a romance somewhat blossoms between them and a genius, reclusive detective works to track him down.

So far, so familiar, but this story plays out very different to the original. The main difference is the characters - pretty much across the board, the characters are hardly recognisable to their original incarnations, other than one that absolutely steals the show. That being Ryuk; casting Willem Dafoe was an absolute masterstroke and he was absolutely perfect in the role - the laugh, the facial expressions, the tone of his voice are all absolutely perfect. It's a real shame there isn't more of him here, and hopefully he will be back in whatever form this continues. The Ryuk character was somewhat altered, though - much more standoffish and seemingly less interested in Light than getting the book to a more fitting Keeper. That's rather fitting, considering that Light in this adaptation is highly unlikeable. Nat Wolff portrays a whiny, screechy Light that is without any of the devious intelligence or the complex plans other than a single moment. Then there's Mia, the replacement for Misa, a very different character, but similarly deliciously unhinged and damaged. Mia is a cheerleader in Light's school he has eyes for, so much so he reveals the note to her and the decision to change the world is almost more her idea than his, with Light using it to almost show off to Mia. This toxic relationship becomes the heart of the story; there's definitely manipulation going on, but this time it's on Mia's part instead of Light's. She's evidently damaged and it's something that would have benefitted from further development.

Fans will notice a certain character absent in this list: L - the genius master detective, the perfect foil for Kira, and possibly the most popular character in the story. L exists in the film but he's a pale imitation of the original. He keeps some of the mannerisms, his method of speaking, and his habit of constantly snacking on sweets, as well as how he sits on a chair. He doesn't seem as intelligent, though, so the cat and mouse game between L and Light that became the core of the story before now feels more tacked on. The pair has the odd confrontation but it's lacking the heart of the original. Instead, the story seems based around the twisted love affair of Light and Mia.

Adaptation is not a four-letter word. The source material is not made lesser by the existence of these alternative versions of stories. The Song of Ice and Fire series is not damaged by the missteps of Game of Thrones. Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower, is not lessened by having a horrendous movie made of it. Even Akira Toriyama's masterpiece Dragon Ball is not lessened by that abomination from James Wong. In some cases, the original actually benefits from the adaptation, regardless of its quality, introducing new fans to the source material simply from having their interest piqued by the adaptation.

That being said…there are some decisions made with this version that are… disappointing, to say the least. Some things seem to just fit, to just work as a key element of the story, and do not need to be altered or elaborated upon. There are some stuttered issues with pacing midway through the film, the occasional bit of trite or cliché dialogue, and some needless changes to the rules of the Death Note itself, which are all rather forgivable. Even the watered down Light is acceptable; this is, after all, a different take on the source material. What is not forgivable, however, is the loss of the relationship between Light and L. This story would be so much better had it been included.

Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10
Adaptations take guts. It is not possible to shrink down the entire Death Note story to fit in 90 minutes, so this was either going to be a part of the story or some major changes. As an adaptation, this is a great one. There are some elements that really shine. Mia is great, Ryuk is superb and, ultimately, the story is a fun ride that is not only worth watching but worth re-watching. Adam Wingard's influence is evident and a real benefit, too, including the fantastic tonal balance seen in his previous works, along with the sublime synth soundtrack. Ultimately, this is a highly enjoyable, albeit flawed, fresh take on the source material and, hopefully, something that will continue to develop, if only for more Dafoe-Ryuk greatness.

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