Give Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day 2U credit for this much: It rarely chooses the easy way out. Having won audiences over with a surprisingly involving film that adapted the Groundhog Day format to the slasher pic, Landon might well have made a good-enough sequel by doing only what his opening scenes suggest — shifting the time-loop focus to another character, Phi Vu’s Ryan Phan, and playing musical chairs in further installments until the fans stopped watching.
Instead, the film (also scripted by Landon) very quickly adds flips to its loops, introducing multiverse theory and alternate realities that throw original star Jessica Rothe back into the spotlight. With her mission vastly more complicated this time around, Rothe’s Tree Gelbman must not just foil killers and decide which universe she wants to wind up in, but become something of a lay expert in quantum mechanics.
For better and worse, the sequel doesn’t stick to what it knows will work.
At least the giant device the pic revolves around isn’t in danger of collapsing all space-time into nothingness. It does eventually suck some of the fun out of a tale that gets off to a rollickingly promising start, but that doesn’t mean 2U won’t fare well enough at the box office to deliver the further adventures promised in a post-credits gag.
Things pick up right where the first film left off. But instead of awakening in the dorm room where Tree is finally starting her romance with nice guy Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), we’re in the car where Carter’s roommate Ryan has slept to give the pair some privacy. Ryan stumbles out and immediately encounters the kinds of annoyances (yapping dogs, intrusive strangers) movies like this love turning into repeating obstacle-course motifs. We follow Ryan, a science student, into a day that’s more academically oriented than the one Tree lived and relived in the last film. The giant contraption he’s building with lab partners Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) seems finally to be working: It generated “0.7 millinewtons of energy yesterday,” they tell him — right around the moment Tree got stuck in the time loop that ended when she solved her own murder.
But, as in the first pic, Ryan’s day builds to murder — a man wearing a giant baby mask appears out of nowhere and puts a chef’s knife through his chest. Then he wakes up in the first scene again.
It takes little time for our heroes to put one and two and the square root of infinity together: Ryan’s machine (nicknamed Sissy) started the time loop, and Tree’s adventures have thrown multiple universes off-kilter in ways that shouldn’t be revealed here. Exposition is blisteringly fast in these scenes, involving a lot of sci-fi stuff that mightn’t hold up to scrutiny. But scrutiny’s not on the menu, is it? We just need to get to a spot at which Tree is dying and living again, over and over, this time with a team of four helpers.
In the first movie, Tree just had to figure out who was trying to kill her so she could stay alive through the night. Here, there’s a straightforward mission — gather enough data so Ryan can make Sissy work and “close the loop” — and an existential one: Without spoiling anything, let’s say that she must choose between love of her family and love of Carter.
While 2U fares pretty well with that first problem, it sometimes suffocates under the emotional demands of the second. Though some parts of his setup are clever, Landon’s execution turns almost maudlin in the third act, with drawn-out goodbye scenes and Hallmark-y life lessons that fit uncomfortably in the kind of cheeky genre pic that might (as this one does) try to make us laugh with a montage of its protagonist’s flippant suicides.
Along the way, though, Happy Death Day 2U throws enough wrinkles into the first film’s action — if you don’t remember it well, rewatch it before seeing this — to engage us. Like Back to the Future II (an inspiration it explicitly acknowledges, just as the first pic nodded to Groundhog Day), it contains enough wit and novelty to make you wish it worked better than it does. If a third installment does happen, here’s hoping it doesn’t go as far off course as Back to the Future III.
Production company: Blumhouse
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Steve Zissis
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Landon
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive producers: John Baldecchi, Angela Mancuso, Samson Mucke
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Bill Boes
Costume designer: Whitney Anne Adams
Editor: Ben Baudhuin
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting directors: Elizabeth Coulon, Sarah Domeier Lindo, Terri Taylor
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes