– By J.W. Fox –
There have definitely been struggles converting Japanese manga into American movies. Ghost in the Shell flopped due to a number of flaws and the whitewash controversy. Replacing Japanese characters with Caucasian ones just doesn’t sit well with progressive critics. Death Note attempted to do the same and ran into the same backlash. It is difficult to find a review that does not emphasize the problematic whitewashing.
To avoid being redundant, I will skip over the whitewashing controversy. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have almost no knowledge of the source material. Other than seeing one episode of the anime series, the story is new to me. What drew me to the movie was the Ryuk character and Willem Dafoe providing his voice. The premise also offered a lot of potential to explore some pretty dark themes, ones most YA and urban fantasy tend to avoid.
Sadly, the movie fell far short of expectations, especially among Death Note fans.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
The Ultimate Insecure Adolescent Fantasy
Death Note is about Light Turner, a troubled but intelligent high school student with few or no friends. His outcast status is emphasized in the first few minutes of the movie. Scenes of football players, cheerleaders, and other smiling teenagers surround him while he sulks alone on a picnic table. Mysteriously, an old leather-bound book falls at his feet just before a storm ruins the idyllic summer day at middle class suburbia high school. The collapse of the happy facade is complete when Light witnesses two bullies harassing another student.
In the first five minutes, the movie presents a downtrodden, persecuted, and marginalized young protagonist but one that seems to have some compassion for those like him. It is this nobody with a good heart that is given a book that can kill anyone whose name is written on its pages. It is a cliché example of adolescent wish fulfillment common in YA fiction. It is the weird and persecuted being endowed with special powers to change an unjust world.
Deep, Dark Themes
What makes Death Note special is the lack of a clear good/evil dichotomy. Ryuk, the death god, is obviously not meant to be a being of good deeds or a positive influence on Light. Light himself, struggles with one moral quandary after another, unsure he is really a good person himself. He openly questions if perhaps he is merely the lesser of two evils. The mysterious investigator L is definitely an antagonist but is not malevolent. He abides by the rule of law, just as he was raised to do.
Unlike many fantasy franchises, the lines are blurred, making it a potentially compelling story.
Light and his love interest Mia are clearly antisocial or at least non-conformist in their views. Both dress and appear almost goth, with black hair and clothes. Both of them openly criticize the rest of society and see the book as the means of making it better. At one point, Mia refers to people as sheep. Light wants to create a god that he names Kira, one to compete with the mainstream God of Christianity. Only his will bring justice, rather than sit back and let evil be done.
The writers and director seem to like this idea. In one scene a cathedral is crumbing. In another “Kira Saves” is scrolled above the doors of a church. The non-conformists get their desired victory over mainstream organized religion and the other symbols adored by the sheep.
Then Something Went Wrong
From the trailer and early scenes of the movie, I was expecting something akin to a Greek tragedy. A mortal given the power of a god. That power along with some good ole’ hubris, ultimately corrupts and consumes him. Combined with the darker themes above, the pieces are there for something special. So what went wrong?
First, the power doesn’t corrupt Light in any meaningful way. He takes to the power with little trouble and wields it like a natural. The first trouble is when the investigator known as “L” announces publicly they are closing in on Kira. Fearing discovery, Light decides to stop the killings. Despite Mia’s pleading he never considers using the book to attack the FBI. The only law enforcement officer he considers an acceptable target is L.
In the end, Light does not experience a moral downfall. Instead, it is Mia who falls. There’s no arc at all, only a fallen character who remains fallen from beginning to end. This might have worked if the movie had not telegraphed Mia’s psychopathic nature from the start.
As for having a thoughtful examination of vigilantism versus the rule of law, that never happens. The central conflict shifts away from Kira and L toward the end. L’s role as rule of law advocate is discarded anyway when Light uses the book to influence L’s surrogate father Watari. The struggle becomes personal from that point onward.
As for the establishment of a new Kira religion and world order, we get nothing more than a few clips playing on the TV. No discussion among the characters of what they’ve done to the world.
In the end, the movie took on too much to cover in 100 minutes.
Straining the Suspension of Disbelief
Somewhere in the middle of the movie, a number of things went wrong: the writing, the characters, and, yes, the casting. All damaged the suspension of disbelief.
First the characters. Light is much more than a weird social outcast. Light is chosen by Ryuk, the death god, because of his pain and anger toward the World. The man who killed his mother got off by bribing the jury. Not only that, he seems to have a disturbing comfort with death. When he kills the bully at his school, he is oddly unmoved by the horrific injustice of the act.
Light, played by Nat Wolff, has some moments but wasn’t particularly likable or compelling. He completely failed to recognize Mia’s psychopathic tendencies, even after she bluntly suggested they kill his father. Mia, played by Margaret Qualley, comes off as sick throughout the movie, with a stone-cold face and flat dialogue delivery. They could have done better in casting her role. While Willem Dafoe’s voice and the CGI Ryuk were menacing, the character spends most of the time in the background.
The biggest problem was the Kira investigation. Investigator L manages to connect the hundreds of murders across the planet to someone in Seattle. Despite the complete absence of any real-world evidence linking Light to the murders, we are expected to believe L and the FBI are able to track him down and may even arrest him. Somehow, L convinces the FBI that a teenager has killed hundreds of terrorists, drug lords, and murderers across the planet.
To put it mildly, that is implausible. To be blunt, that is total bullshit.
The climax of the movie plays up the relationship between Light and Mia, but the movie utterly fails to establish much of one up to that point. Mia is obviously turned on by the power of the book, not Light. Director Adam Wingard seemed to be trying to paint a picture of innocence lost, with the Winter dance and the Ferris wheel locale, only neither character was ever really innocent.
The music was also off, using some kind of indie rock that clashed with the feel of what was happening on screen. Visually much of the movie has the style of a Marilyn Manson music video, clashing adolescent innocence with violent, bloody, and religious imagery. A more conventional horror movie soundtrack would have worked much better, in my humble opinion.
Once again, a comic book/manga franchise fails to fulfill the expectations of its fans and the potential of the source material. Death Note loses its footing early and never regains it. Lack of focus, unlikable characters, numerous plot problems, and some poor casting decisions result in a disappointing flop. I cannot recommend this movie, even though it is basically free on Netflix. Horror fans, especially those who love the Final Destination franchise might like it, but the target audience will not.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.