'Happy Death Day 2U' Explains More Than Scares in 2nd Loop

Directed by: Christopher Landon; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: C-

Less than a year and a half ago, Happy Death Day jolted the Halloween season awake with its unexpectedly entertaining and genuinely suspenseful twist on Groundhog Day, where a sorority girl continuously lives out the same day in which she's stalked and killed by someone wearing a baby mask. The amusement factor runs high due to both the time-based humor and the brutal methods in which she keeps dying at the hand of this Ghostface-inspired predator, yet the ways in which the original ties into her birthday, family, and personal growth also give it a meaningful streak. And like the Bill Murray vehicle that so clearly inspired it, no explanation was given or needed for how she got caught in the time loop; in fact, the seemingly mystical enigmas of her predicament played into the emotional tempo. The sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, doesn't appreciate this: it's a sequel that relies on tearing down mysteries in order to hijack characters and recreate the cyclical suspense, making both lesser films when viewed together.

Fans of Happy Death Day should have fond memories of Phi Vu's character: the bleached-blonde Asian guy whose vulgar statement gets repeated over and over, getting all sorts of reactions and interruptions from Tree (Jessica Rothe), our focal sorority girl, as he stumbles into a shared dorm room. The sequel begins from his perspective as he's awakened while sleeping in his car (which really does look like it smells like Hot Pockets and feet), after which he has an eventful day of accidents, surprises, and the delivery of tough news about his scientific research project. Later, he gets stabbed by someone dressed in a familiar baby mask and black clothes, which leads to him reliving the same day over again. Wandering into his dorm room as Tree and her now-boyfriend-ish Carter (Israel Broussard) are making out, he divulges to them the nature of this weirdness, which naturally puts Tree -- who just recently escaped from her own time loop -- on edge. By helping him and discovering the source of the loops, Tree again gets drawn into a chronological nightmare.

Now, I'm not usually in favor of storytelling elements being chalked up to "magic", but doing so really worked to Happy Death Day's advantage, even on a deeper, semi-philosophical level. As soon as quantum physics and an experimental reality-warping device enter the picture in Happy Death Day 2U, these facets are systematically stripped away by co-writers Christopher Landon and Scott Lobdell from the universe they've created, in a misguided effort to pull Tree back into the chronological chaos and … heavy sigh … to realistically describe how and why it all happened in the first place. Just on the surface, this frontloads the sequel with passable supporting characters, a messy attempt to set up the notion of multiple universes/dimensions, and, quite frankly, some feeble attempts at mounting suspense around the Babyface Killer's return. In the original, Tree sought out -- by violent trial and error -- the right chain of events that stop her killer, whereas this sequel chases a fix to the scientific cause of it all. Blah.

There are less complicated, more viscerally suspenseful ways in which Tree could've been forced back into the loop(s) for a sequel, and the sloppiness of how it's established here -- a villainous and fickle dean of students (Steve Zissis) who abruptly endangers the research project; an inconsistent alt-reality version of sorority queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews); lots of monotonous equations -- drain the suspense from Happy Death Day 2U. As soon as Jessica Rothe recaptures the camera's focus, however, it's as if a switch gets flipped that immediately refocuses one's attention back onto the dizzying world extending from the original, with her character bravely charging into obstacles as the weatherworn, charismatic heroine she's become. It's easy to hate on how Tree gets pulled back into this mess, but the vivacity in how Rothe's character mentally and emotionally processes the differences between timelines almost justifies it, even when she goes through with some questionable trial-and-error plans.

Most of the missteps in Happy Death Day 2U boil down to a lack of understanding of how to be a horror movie alongside its other objectives, drawing too much inspiration from Back to the Future -- yes, it's referenced by name -- without remembering to directly unsettle the audience every once in a while. By presenting the idea that Tree could exist in multiple universes, the screenplay also creates the possibility that the killer from the first movie isn't necessarily the killer in the sequel, which does introduce the opportunity for Christopher Landon and Scott Lobdell to create new suspects, fates for the various characters, and a few red herrings. They get so caught up in the "multiverse" and narrowing down these variables that they neglect the buildup of suspense over revealing who's behind the mask this time. While it's a trip to see stuff like Tree lifting middle fingers in a bikini while falling and splatting to her fate, and then promptly getting resurrected, the context lacks suspense and smacks of obligation to repeat strategies that work in the original.

From recognizable camera angles and referential dialogue to the emotional choice at the heart of the story, Happy Death Day 2U can't be accused of avoiding the first film or attempting to stand alone, relishing all the ways it recalls details both large and small from Tree's first encounter with "the loop". It's worth applauding how Landon and Lobdell have written around the character's internal turmoil -- both physical and psychological -- and how that bleeds into this sequel, because the scenario surrounding our heroine certainly wants to rationalize the technobabble used to explain away what was once perceived as a divine occurrence, a la Groundhog Day, in the first film. Much like what happens to Tree throughout this new franchise, however, too much abuse gets unleashed upon the concept for Happy Death Day 2U to remain standing by its end, and it's due to Landon and Lobdell making the fundamental mistake of trying to explain what's best left unexplained.


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