Rothe is still a final girl who knows exactly what she’s doing, but Christopher Landon’s confused sequel doesn’t have any idea what it wants to be.
Everyone knows that Christopher Landon’s 2017 surprise hit “Happy Death Day” — a funny, fresh “Groundhog Day” for the horror set — chronicled the fallout of a screwy timeline loop that impacted just one person, but what “Happy Death Day 2U” presupposes is, what if that’s not true? At least, that’s how Landon’s sequel starts, approaching the repeating-day trope that drove the first film (and, yes, “Groundhog Day” and scads of other imitators), imagining that another student of Bayfield University is stuck in a loop that restarts only after they befall a gruesome death. It’s a fine enough idea, but from the start, Landon’s own script is at odds with its aims, understanding too late that it detracts from what’s always been the best part of the newly minted franchise: star Jessica Rothe.
While the film’s opening scenes make it appear as if this iteration will focus on Carter’s (Israel Broussard) spacey roommate Ryan (Phi Vu), who made only brief appearances in the first film, Landon eventually brushes aside all the plot points he’s set up in favor of turning the attention back to Rothe’s Tree Gelbman. It’s an ultimately smart choice, but it’s a flummoxing one, considering all the work that goes into introducing Ryan as this installment’s star. Like the first film, “Happy Death Day 2U” opens with a seemingly regular morning that results in a vicious death, only to reset and start all over again, much to the dismay of its central character.
In the opening act, Ryan endures his own series of morning hallmarks — while Tree contended with a crunchy petition-toter, a loved-up couple, beleaguered frat boys, and a very loud car alarm, Ryan is saddled with a different motley crew of early annoyances that tip him off to the repetitive nature of his life — though they all lead him straight to Tree and Carter, who are once again trapped in a time loop. Attempts to make sense of the events of the first film in an actual scientific context (Ryan as it turns out, has invented a machine that accidentally creates time loops, then entire new dimensions) fall mostly flat.
When “Happy Death Day 2U” is at its most enjoyable, it requires the audience to abandon logic and wholly surrender to the power of an entertaining story (something the first film did better, and with more zip), but that doesn’t mean the film should be let off the hook when it comes to making sense in even the widest of strokes. And while the silly sense of humor that made the first film such a surprising scream is intact, the sequel messily careens between horror, mystery, thriller, drama, sci-fi, and romance, never settling completely into any genre.
At the most basic level, however, “Happy Death Day 2U” is a horror comedy that leans hard into sci-fi, eventually doing away with Ryan’s perspective and sending Tree (and only Tree) back to where it all began: her birthday, the setting of the first film. Except this time around, it’s not a time loop at work, but a whole other dimension, one in which a handful of key things have been tweaked, and Tree must contend with not being murdered (again) and deciding which dimension is right for her. It’s a natty, weird twist on similar concepts, a sort of spin on “it was all a dream” that allows entire sequences to be relived and extremely dead characters to return, very much alive.
Fan favorites like sorority mean girl Danielle (Rachel Matthews) are back, while Tree’s roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) gets a literally fresh lease on life and and even the creepy-sexy Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) gets more dimension in, well, this other dimension. Tree makes some of the same mistakes again, and the film itself gets to double dip on its more enjoyable impulses, like a breathless montage that follows Tree as she creatively kills herself at the end of each day (she’s so sick of being murdered), a new version of a similar montage in the first film, which was concerned with Tree trying to find her killer and being repeatedly offed in the process.
When it works, it’s never better than a loving retread of the pleasures of the first film; when it doesn’t, it’s a head-scratcher of the highest order, a film that exists to push forward a franchise that seems to have already lost its way. While it may be too early for another reset, Tree and her time loops deserve better than a sloppy rehash that doesn’t remember what made the first one tick.
Universal Pictures will release “Happy Death Day 2U” on Wednesday, February 13.