Death Note (2017) Review - Not Exactly as Planned

Jared Popelar · August 30, 2017

Before we get to work here, I want to slip in this disclaimer. If you’ve read any of my previous articles about this movie, you’d be well within your rights to think that I’m not the most objective person to review this. On the runup to this film’s release, I advocated for its conceptual merits extensively and have showed signs that I’m really hoping for this movie to be good. We call this confirmation bias, and that can be a dangerous thing in critique, as it can cause critics to judge something more or less harshly because we kinda get a kick out of being right about things. I’m writing this disclaimer before having seen Death Note, and I intend to be as balanced and objective as I can possibly be for the following review. However, if this is the part where you jump over to another review at the risk of this one being potentially tainted by bias, then I completely understand. As for the rest of you, like I said, I’m going to put on my critic gloves nice and tight this time as I give this movie as unbiased a review as I humanly can. I swear it in the name of Willem DaFoe and his angelically gravelly voice.

So, shall we begin?


So if you somehow missed all of the four months' worth of buzz surrounding this week’s subject matter, allow to briefly bring you up to speed. Last spring, the media streaming colossus known as Netflix released a teaser trailer for their live-action Death Note movie, an adaptation of the legendary manga-turned-anime series originally aired in late 2006. Problem was, not everyone was on board for it at the time, and since this is the age of the internet where you can pretty much say anything you want under the blanket of anonymity, a large part of the anime fandom didn’t like it too much.

Personally I thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion, and I did an article shortly after the trailer’s release addressing some of the more common complaints I was reading about. Then the full length trailer hit, another wave of backlash hit Netflix’s channel, I had to do another editorial to address that, and now finally, we’re here.

The main event.

The moment everyone has been waiting for.

And…do you think maybe we can call this one a draw? Because the best word I could think of to sum up my experience with Death Note 2017 is just “alright.” It’s sure as hell not the next Dragonball Evolution or Last Airbender (frankly I’m not sure anything will ever be), but after sitting down and thinking about the movie, I don’t think I’m ready to run out of apartment extolling praise for Kira either.


Ah well. Who wants tea?

It’s not offensively bad, but it’s not amazingly wonderful either. It’s a good, well put together film that stands up fine if we look at it as just another offering in the summer cinematic lineup. The primary issue though, which you can probably guess seeing as how this is an anime blog, is that we can’t really do that. A sizeable number of people watching this movie (myself included) are fans of the original manga and anime series, and that means they’re going to have expectations in terms of characters, plot development, and underlying themes because that’s what the source material is known for.

And that’s going to be the primary sticking point for you if you’re interested in watching this as a fan of the original manga and anime. If you didn’t know anything about Death Note and was just watching this as a movie, you’d probably say that it’s a good, occasionally great, film on the whole - the cinematography looks really cool, most of the roles I think are pretty well acted, I love Ryuk just as much as I was expecting to and then some, and you can see and feel the effort that was put into this project. Objectively, it’s a good movie.

But speaking as someone who’s gone on the record multiple times stating that Death Note is my favorite anime series of all time, I can’t help the feeling that there should’ve been a little more substance to the story’s writing and character development, which are unfortunately the two things people really loved about the anime.

The big selling point for Death Note 2017 is that it’s supposed to be an American retelling of the original story. The settting is downtown Seattle, where our protagonist Light Turner (Nat Wolff, Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars) finds a mysterious notebook left behind by the…dammit, they did exactly what I didn’t want them to do…“death god” Ryuk (voiced by Willem DaFoe, who everyone should know by this point). The notebook, as it’s revealed very early on, is capable of killing anyone by any means as long as the user knows their name and face. Eventually Light gets the idea to use the notebook’s powers for “good,” as he starts killing off people who he deems are “evil.” Assisting him is Mia Sutton (Margret Qualley, The Nice Guys, Palo Alto), a fellow classmate and eventual girlfriend, and the two of them together get to work filling out the notebook under the moniker Kira. Naturally, word spreads to the ears of the world-renowned detective L (Keith Stanfield, Get Out, Snowden, Straight Outta Compton), and a game of psychological cat and mouse begins to take place.


And also it helps that Ryuk doesn’t look like this.

Or, at least, that’s what should have happened. The film’s primary problem is that it focuses on the wrong things and doesn’t seem to catch onto what made the original anime so compelling. Eighty percent of the fun in Death Note is watching L chase Light around as his primary suspect but lacking the means to pin him down as Kira, while Light has to continue his work as Kira without tipping off L in the process. It was the mind games that really drew me to the anime and manga, and unfortunately Death Note 2017 is severely lacking in that respect.

The film is certainly intelligent - L is still a worthy adversary for Light and both sides' moves are well-planned and logical (well, usually), and there’s a ton of subtle storytelling clues such as Light selling homework to other students that provide excellent unspoken characterization. Also, I timed some of the deaths caused by the Death Note, and was shocked to see that they took roughly fourty seconds of on-screen time to actually kill the victim. I got really excited when I figured that out, since not only is that a fun little callback to the anime and manga, but it shows that the filmmakers were trying to give this movie the same respect that fans give the source material.

And all of those are good things. Like I said, as a movie this film is pretty good. I enjoyed it a lot. But as an adaptation, the movie falls very, very short, and that’s where Death Note 2017 will likely lose a lot of its prospective audience. Because while this film got a lot of its little details correct - L does not like wearing shoes and eats enough sugar to last him until next Halloween, Light’s relationship with Ryuk is complicated at best and in fact they ram heads more often than we usually think - the core elements of that make Death Note Death Note are hardly present, if they are even there at all.


There are plenty of references to the manga, though.

Mia Sutton suffers the most from this, as a rather radical departure from her base character Misa Amane. To be fair here, it is 2017 aka the year everybody got offended, so just doing the “I love Light so much and I’m just going to do everything he tells me to do because I love him” schtick probably wasn’t going to fly. And it’s not like Mia is a bad character overall; she does get some decent lines and helps out Light a bit more proactively than her Japanese counterpart, which I’m perfectly down for. But then the story starts going off the rails a bit and by the time the Act 3 “twist” comes around, her character starts to become very messy. Again, not bad, but it’s definitely not the Misa we’re used to.

And I think this highlights the biggest issue I have with the film overall: it has a ton of creative, cool ideas that don’t get the time they deserve becasuse everything has to fit into a relatively short hour and a half of screentime. Light’s mom isn’t around because she got involved in a hit-and-run accident, which I thought would be a pretty monumental plot point as a kill that finally gets L’s attention, but instead he’s just used as another person for Light to test the notebook on. It feels incredibly token, as a result of that arc lasting maybe five minutes starting from when we first learn about it. L lashes out at Light in some remarkably un-L-like ways, and yeah I know I defended L’s kinda short fuse in the past but this just takes it too far.

Also, Netflix, where the hell is the potato chip scene? Where the hell is my “exactly as planned” face? What the hell happened to the passive-aggressive tennis game? Those are easily some of the most iconic scenes in the manga, cheesy as they were, and they missed an amazing opportunity to bring that ham onto the big screen.

Instead, we get a scene where Light screams like a girl for a minute on end. How Kira-esque.


No writing notes in class!

I wasn’t especially into the choices in soundtrack either, and I’m aware that sounds like a very nitpicky criticism. But when you go from this to this, I think it’s worth pointing it out.

In the end, I’m just conflicted with Death Note 2017. I really, really like it as a movie; the writing is solid, the direction is tight and well-executed, and every aspect of the film, from the acting to the set design, feels like it’s firing on all cylinders at all times. If I hadn’t read the manga or watched the anime, I would say that this is one of the better movies of the summer. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I had a bad time.

However, looking at it as a retelling of one of my favorite shows of all-time, Death Note could have done a lot more. When compared to the source material, just about everything feels off. The characterization is all over the place, the plot feels comparatively rushed and contrived at times, and nearly all of the aspects I enjoyed so much from the anime are either watered down if not just missing altogether.

But…I just can’t bring myself to get angry at this movie. Because whatever it does, it does really damn well. How can I give a poor grade to a film that I actively, thoroughly enjoyed watching? And the answer is: I can’t.

It’s a good movie, but it sure as hell wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m still going to recommend it; you should see this movie regardless of your first premonitions towards it. As for whether or not you’ll enjoy it, I honestly couldn’t tell you.


But I can guarantee you’ll enjoy this lunatic.

So…here’s a grade, I guess. This is easily the hardest review I’ve done so far, so if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a root beer float milkshake.

Yes, those exist.

THE VERDICT: C+ Next time: Not Kakegurui

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