Netflix' Death Note is an ambitious reimagining of a beloved Anime/Manga that was praised for it's complex cat and mouse psychological morbidity. It pains me to say this so bluntly up front, but if you love Death Note because of the above reason go ahead and let it go right now. This movie's production team and director (Adam Wingard) have said from its inception that this movie was going to be its own story using the elements of the original Death Note but it will not be a remake of the anime, rather, a separate story on its own. That is the truest statement they could've made about this movie. It is barely like its Japanese counterparts in that it only shares the Death Note book and the names of some characters. Everything, and I mean everything, else is different. This review is something that's had me on the fence more than most movies, because I am a fan of the original series, and because of that I did in fact find it difficult to review this movie on its own merits while noting the contrasts. What I mean is it's not the quality of the movie per se, but while I was watching I couldn't help but ask myself "now do I not like this character's desicion because it doesn't work or because is so totally different than what the original character would do?". Ultimately, I'm going to compare and contrast this movie to its sources in this review but the overall rating I will give, along with its continuity, I will limit to the movie as a standalone film.
So the movie in a nutshell is that a young, smarter than average, boy named Light Turner finds a Death Note placed on purpose by a god of death known as Ryuk. Through Ryuks encouragement, Light begins to use the Death Note to cleanse the world of criminals and eventually shares his secret and power with his crush, Mia. Light and Mia come up with the moniker Kira and begin large scale killings which attracts the attention of a world class detective who goes by the name of L and his assistant Watari. Lights father, a police officer, is placed on the task force that L creates to take down Kira. L places many FBI agents in invistagitive positions to physically follow and report on his leads, however this team is mysteriously compromised and killed, to which Light blames Ryuk. After Lights father makes a public statement against Kira and does not die, L realizes that Light is Kira however he does not suspect Mia at this time. Light uses Watari to attempt to gain L's real name and fails which makes L react sporadically and search and seize items in Lights home, however Misa makes it out with the DeathNote. Light, never intending to kill Watari, realizes that Mia had stolen a page from the Death Note and was behind the death of the FBI agents, Watari, and now has written Light's name in an attempt to receive ownership of the note from him, promising to use a rule in the book that allows the erasure of one name to spare him if he does. A chase between L and Light ensues, and Mia and Light flee to a ferris wheel that is then torn down by Ryuk leading to the death of Mia, the erasure of Lights name on the note, and Light gets put in a coma. The killings continue while Light is in a coma, which leads to the police refusing to work with L who went to great and mostly illegal means of trying to bust Light. The movie closes with Light receiving the Death Note again as his father tells him he knows Light is Kira, and Light explains how he used the note to influence the actions of the people around him to ensure his survival at the ferris wheel and the erasure of his name. L finds a torn out page of the Death Note but the credits roll before he makes a decision on what to do with it.
This movie takes such a drastic turn away from its source material that the characters are almost incomparable. Almost. Light is not a super genius with a god complex and truly has feelings for Mia. Mia is more reckless and willing to kill than Light is. These two are so far from their counterparts that I won't touch them however there are two characters who I can't ignore on this subject: L and Ryuk. L acts, for the first 2/3 of the movie, exactly like his japanese parallel. He's weird, obsessed with sweets, and calculating -if not dumbed down by a easurable margin. But the thought process of L is there. The very first time we see L he makes a comment about how he hacked police databases and seeded obscure criminals into news outlets to see if Kira would kill them and use that information to determine how Kira kills and where he is. That was morally apprehensive, his willingness to put criminal lives on the line for solely his benifet, but above all it's something L would do. And throughout the film we see things the original L does. It's clear the writers and directors took a good look at the source material for this character and wanted to make this one similar. Until the last 30 minutes of the movie. Watari is killed and L spirals out of control. He becomes emotionally unhinged, carries a gun to apprehend Light, steals a cop car, cries and yells at Lights home, and does nothing that reflects his past self. This wouldn't have actually been so bad if the entire movie hadn't already been displaying a different character. This dramatic change in demeanor told me one thing; that the L we see in the beginning of the movie, who was true to his counterpart, is all one big act. It's not his personality it's what he wants other people to see and when put in real stress or the stakes become felt by him personally he caves and becomes nothing better than any typical person. Which again would've been cool if the majority of the movie wasn't trying to convince us otherwise by using mannerisms that were identical to the source.
Really, the only times I really cared about the differences between this movie and it's source were when the elements or characters did match up closely to their counterparts while the characters themselves acts like their counterparts. If your going to go for a likeness then go for it, don't half ass the characterization or motivations, and on the other side, if all your going to keep is the name of the character then fine, cut away and make it your own character. This idea of taking a character and making it the movies own works great for Light, not so great for L, but the most dissapointing was Ryuk. A big complaint I have is how criminally underused Willem Dafoe is in the movie, and even when he was used he was such a big left turn away from his character. He looked and talked and for the most part acted like he was supposed to, but Ryuk was never involved in the world, he was merely an observer, and here they have him taking a very active role in the film. I was even able to forgive him being the one who originally goads Light into using the Death Note, the film simply wasn't long enough to not have some of the plot points flesh out, however his interest and role in Wataris death, and the use of him in the ferris wheel scene felt forced. I would've actually preferred a more Rube Goldberg ending. The movie actually establishes this to great effect for all the other deaths then for some reason doesn't bother in the end. Again, if youre going to make the characters that much like their counterparts, just go for it don't cherry pick the mannerisms you like.
Apart from the contrasts to the anime, the movie as a standalone typically works. The acting I've seen scrutinized but honestly I didn't find it to be that bad. I thought the characters were stupid in their decision making but they never really established that they were super smart so I didn't mind some of the mannerisms that characters like Light displayed that ended up landing them in bigger trouble. The cinematography was nothing special, but it wasn't terrible by any means, and the score was actually really on point except for the ferris wheel scene. Overall if you enjoyed such horror as Final Destination you will enjoy this. The things I really enjoyed about the movie seemed underused, which is a shame. I really enjoyed the overly complex ending explanation, with all the flashbacks about how Light planned the whole thing in advance to turn out in his favor. It actually tied up some of the initial complaints I had with the sequence, like the Death Note returning to him, or the page with his name getting burned. I wish the movie would've done way more with this type of narration, and played out the events like a chain reaction one character had planned for another. I really missed such scenes from the original such as the Lind L Taylor killing, but felt the movie compensated with the planting obscure criminals in the news part. Things like this tended to save the movie from being unwatchable, however that said the biggest flaws I found out of everything were 2 huge moments, one of them a straight continuity error. The first thing was L getting Light to admit he was Kira. Why would he not be taping that conversation? That makes no sense after the lengths we see his surveillance of Light unfold into. The continuity error is quite egregious; with Light trying to use Watari to get L's name by writing the name "Watari" in the Death Note. There's no last name, it's apparently not a moniker, and it somehow works. I really couldn't get over this critical point in the plot. I suppose the most logical reasoning would be that the man known as Watari at some point had his legal named changed to Watari and that's why it worked in the Death Note, but for a movie that really holds your hand throughout some of the more complex moments I really shouldn't have to make such leaps to fill in the holes.
All in all Death Note is just a "meh" film. I wouldn't go so far as to call it horrible, and if my above statements seem full of criticisms it's because I do hold the source material in high regard, and this film is such a hard shift from that. I'm not really sure what makes this film watchable for me, I just didn't hate it. Besides the Watari continuity error, it didn't have any really damning qualities if you look at it as a standalone film, and I think it can be a good access point for general audiences. If you didn't mind this enough to look further into the Death Note universe it only really gets better. Overall I think the film suffers from its limited run time, and there's simply no way to adapt a cat and mouse psychological drama into a 2 hour plot. It really could've benefitted heavily from being a trilogy, and would've been highly praised if they took an easy way out and made a remake along the lines of an original, which is something I rarely say. But honestly, there's been no good live action Death Note movie that captured the real essence of the show and manga, so why not be the first that everyone can point to before you take a drastic distinction from the franchise? Death Note is not good enough to say you are missing out on anything if you're not watching, and not bad enough to say that you absolutely shouldn't watch it. Overall it's a mediocre film that fits squarely in the middle of general rating scales.