The Problem with Death Note: It's Boring

Illustration for article titled The Problem with Death Note: Its Boring

On Friday, Netflix released the long awaited adaptation of the manga and anime Death Note. The reviews and opinions are fairly split. While the movie is bad, its real problem is that it’s boring. Here are the 6 most noticeable issues.


No. 1 - Light
Much of the film’s dullness stems from its protagonist, Light. In the first several minutes of the film, we get the idea that he is a loner with above average intelligence and loose morality. And just after the opening credits, he finds the Death Note. Structurally this was a poor choice because the audience has not yet been given a strong reason to care about this character. The film never recovers.

His reaction to getting the Death Note is equally dull. First he’s suspicious, then intrigued, then enraptured, and finally he becomes somewhat repentant but mostly just interested in self-preservation. He doesn’t learn anything; he doesn’t really grow; he only takes action as the narrative requires. This makes his story, the central pillar of the film, just completely uncompelling. Part of this stems from:

No. 2 - Ryuk
Ryuk, in the source material, simply wants to bring some light to his dull seeing how humans kill each other. In being an agent of the owner of the Death Note, he becomes a reflection of them and their ego. In the film, Ryuk is actually the original agitator. More of a creepy demon with a plan of his own than an enabler who’s along for the ride, Ryuk takes agency away from Light in the film. This makes both characters less interesting.

The lore of the death gods is also completely absent in the new film, and we aren’t even teased about Ryuk’s backstory. He’s just there to cause some problems. I never got the sense that he had deeper motivations, leaving him flat and lifeless beyond Willem Dafoe’s creepy voice. And as good as it is, I’m sad to say that Willem Dafoe’s creepy voice is not the substitute for a well-developed character. Light and Ryuk are joined by a third, equally lifeless individual:

No. 3 - Mia
I honestly have no clue what they were doing with her. We first see her smoking a cigarette during cheer practice, literally too cool for school. From there, we learn that she occasionally confronts bullies, may have a boyfriend that just disappears into the ether, gets hot for Light once he shows her his Death Note, and then reveals herself to be a sociopath. They only thing she has going for her is that she’s not a completely subservient, sexist caricature of a woman. Progress?

No. 4 - Horror
Now we get to a tonal issue with the film: the attempt at horror. This comes across most noticeably in three scenes towards the beginning of the film: when the Death Note falls from the sky, when Light first meets Ryuk during detention, and the first time Ryuk enters Light’s home. There are some generic effects indicating something ominous is happening, and Light acts like he’s scared, but none of these scenes lean into horror enough to affect the viewer. There’s no tension, no surprises, and no sense of dread. They didn’t add to the narrative or align me with the characters’ subjectivity. Actually they made me dislike Light more because of his completely over-the-top reactions. Adam Wingward has already proven himself a capable horror director, making this issue truly frustrating.

No. 5 - Inconsistent Tone
The attempt at incorporating horror is a small part of a much larger issue with the film’s tone. There are varying degrees of horror, absurdist crime thriller, teen comedy, and family drama. But the filmmakers tried to do so many different things, and often quickly oscillate between tones, that not a single one worked. I understand the inherent difficulty of adapting from a source that reflects such a wide range of influences and genres, but that is no excuse for laziness or indecisiveness. With only an hour and forty minutes, they should have honed in on the tone that best supported the story they intended to tell. In the end, it just seems like a film without a clear identity.

No. 6 - Narrative
A good story is like a journey. You start at point A, then take a roundabout and interesting trip to point B. By that time, something should have fundamentally changed about the world or the characters inhabiting it. It doesn’t work like that in the new Death Note. Light starts out as a loner with a loose moral code, family issues, and an instinct for self-preservation; he also ends as a loner with a loose moral code, family issues, and an instinct for self-preservation. And because Ryuk manipulates him into using the book, he doesn’t learn much and the audience isn’t led to deserve or care about his comeuppance.

This isn’t the only issue with the narrative. Like the source material, a genius, crime-fighting youngster joins authorities in their hunt for Light (aka Kira). But the film is so rushed that they don’t clearly set him up in the film world. He’s just an even more spastic kid that for some reason is incredibly wealthy and is allowed to work with the FBI. In the context of the film, his presence makes no sense, and the character is just kind of annoying. The audience is left feeling indifferent to his quest for justice. Even after Light/Kira takes something dear from him, it’s not clear why we should care.

The cumulative result of these issues is an entirely inconsequential, boring film that exists for the sake of itself. And that’s just about the worst crime a movie like this can commit. I truly wonder who the filmmakers and Netflix thought they were reaching. Fans of the anime or manga would be displeased with the whitewashing/Americanization and apparent lack of regard for the source. People who like horror movies will likely find it unsatisfying, the gore too generic. There’s not enough teen comedy or family drama to draw in those types of fans. It’s just here and will likely fade from our collective memory soon. If you haven’t watched the film yet, I suggest you avoid it and make due with your boredom just like Ryuk.


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