Netflix’s Death Note: The Good, the Bad, and the Negative Examples

When I heard about the Netflix remake of ‘Death Note,’ I was incredibly skeptical. Every new piece of information – from the Americanization to the casting – made me sink down a little lower in my metaphorical chair. I didn’t expect much when I took the plunge into giving it a try, so I was both pleasantly surprised and unpleasantly irked in equal parts. Is the movie kind of a mess? Yeah boy. Is it more of a teen-angst horror film than a deeply philosophical exploration of good and evil? You bet. Could it have been a lot worse? Well…yeah, actually.

The Surprisingly Enjoyable

• The atmosphere. If you’re looking for #aesthetic cinematography, you can get it here. The deep colors are reminiscent of John Wick, and the shots do well at building suspense or capturing the intense, gritty mood of the movie.

• Even if you hate the changes (of which there are….many), you can acknowledge they were well-done, for what they were. The changes to Light, Mia/Misa, and L aren’t the greatest, but they’re well-acted and had they been original characters, I wouldn’t have had many complaints.

• Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. This was basically genius.

• The soundtrack. Apparently everyone is upset at the 80’s soundtrack, which, on one hand, I understand – Stranger Things started a trend, but Death Note isn’t set in the eighties, so stop trying to be #aesthetic. On the other hand…it’s 80’s music, man. I really liked it.

• They stayed fairly true to the concept. Of course the anime/movie series did it better, but for an angst-ridden teen horror film, the movie dug more into the concept of morality than I expected it would. (Granted, the movie didn’t really come to a solid conclusion, unlike its predecessors, but still.)

• The new backstory for L. Sure, it’s kind of trope-y, but the concept of L raised with other experimental children to be amazing detectives was a fun one, if (sadly) hardly explored whatsoever.

The Disappointing

• L. L is one of my favorite characters in anime/manga/film history. My favorite version of L is the flawlessly-casted Kenichi Matsyuama (Junsu in the musical version + the original version being my other two favorites). That’s not to say Keith Stanfield did a bad job – I’d say he did a fine job, and none of the issues are his fault. He sits like L, holds things with two fingers like L, makes rude-but-honest observations like L, and is positive Light is Kira. There, however, the similarities end. This version of L is emotional, makes stupid decisions, and somehow looks perfectly healthy despite averaging one hour of sleep every two days and eating nothing but sugar. They tried too hard to write their own version of L and the result was frankly unimpressive.

• Light. Now, I don’t care that this version of Light didn’t have the insane good looks of the original Light, since his good looks weren’t a necessary plot item here. But gone is the cool, composed, unemotional rationality of the original Light. Instead, say hello to the extremely emotional, high-pitched screams and bad decision-making of a Light whose original predecessor could take him out with a thought, probably.

• Mia. Out with the adorably wide-eyed, naive murder-girlfriend and in with the crazed, edgy sexpot Lady Macbeth stand-in! I – okay. Just…just suffice it to say that every character here is about 1/10 as good as the original version.

• Ryuk is kind of pointless. Ryuk, the death god who gives Light the Note and enables him to do whatever he wants, is /pointless/ here. Instead he goads Light into doing what he wants and acts like he’s playing a game without explaining any of the rules. (And speaking of the Note rules…they’re different here. Conveniently. Sigh.)

• Ah, the gore. Here’s the thing – gore isn’t a big deal to me. What is a big deal to me is that this version obviously felt like the on-screen deaths weren’t meaningful enough without buckets of blood + guts.  Most of these deaths felt contrived and cartoonish, lacking the elegance or nuance of the original version(s). Again: teen horror movie. Not psychological thriller.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Now, again – FOR WHAT THE MOVIE WAS, it was well-done. The acting was good, the mood was good, the music was good, the suspense was good. It wasn’t boring, it wasn’t completely stupid, it wasn’t horrible. I never wanted to stop watching it, which says something. However, in attempting to westernize the story, they removed everything that made it such a timeless classic. It lacked charm, empathy, thought-provocation, and subtlety. In trying to make everything edgier, they took away the edge.

If you ever feel like writing a twist on a classic story, I ask this of you: don’t dumb it down to try and make it more accessible. Don’t remove class for camp. Don’t turn intelligent characters into morons to make the writing easier. Don’t trade subtlety for a 2×4 over the head. Don’t do what Netflix did to Death Note.

(Except maybe the 80’s music part.)


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