‘Happy Death Day 2U’ review: A risky genre-bending exercise

Happy Death Day 2U as a go-for-broke sequel has a bunch of hit or miss ideas under its belt.

The following review contains major spoilers from Happy Death Day and minor spoilers from Happy Death Day 2U.

One of Blumhouse’s low-budget breakout films in 2017, Happy Death Day, is a high-concept, black-comedy slasher flick that can be easily explained as a mashup of Groundhog Day and Scream. In the film, an obnoxious college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself reliving the same events of her birthday (“Monday the 18th”) only to be murdered by the end of it. After trying and dying for eleven times, she finally figures out who the ‘Babyface Killer’ is – her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) – and kills her before she does, thereby successfully breaking the time loop. Or so she thought.

While the film could’ve worked as a stand-alone, its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, answers the loose threads of the first film, more specifically, the cause of the strange, recurring phenomena. Turns out, Ryan (Phi Vu), the roommate of Tree’s love interest Carter (Israel Broussard), has been working on a quantum reactor that backfired and affected Tree whose within close proximity. Now HDD2U’s trailer may suggest that she somehow gets sent back to the same loophole again but what the trailer disguises is that Tree actually gets sucked to an alternate reality of her “Monday the 18th.” Yes, this sequel pushes the boundary to sci-fi territory and works on the concept of a multiverse. If you’re caught up with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse or The Flash TV series, this should not be confusing.

The gang tries to crack the time loop formula in ‘Happy Death Day 2U.’ L-R: Israel Broussard (Carter), Phi Vu (Ryan), Sarah Yarkin (Dre), Suraj Sharma (Samar) and Jessica Rothe (Tree).

Regardless, the film explains the proceedings to its viewers by utilizing the roles of Ryan and his coalition of science geeks to spell out the scientific mumbo jumbo behind it. With the alternate dimension in play, the circumstances are now different: there’s a change in relationship among the characters, the ‘Babyface Killer’ is no longer Lori, and each death makes Tree weaker. Part of Tree’s ordeal is not only to figure out who the new killer is, but also to find a way to get back to her original and now normal dimension, “Tuesday the 19th.”

For better or worse, HDD2U is distinctly goofier than its predecessor. Writer-director Christopher Landon recognizes the need to add something fresh to his running gimmick by unabashedly transitioning the sequel to sci-fi comedy, even referencing Back to the Future II to show the film’s level of self-awareness. And the tonal shift does not end there – in an attempt to add more fun and substance, the screenplay haphazardly moves to college romance, family drama, heist then finally, slapstick comedy. This apparent genre-bending exercise can be a deal-breaker to some but for the most part, it contributes to the film’s zaniness. True to its core, HDD2U feels like an alternate and bonkers version of the first film.

Confronting the original ‘Babyface Killer.’ L-R: Broussard, Ruby Modine (Lori), Vu and Rothe.

The risks that the film takes does not always pay off. Once again, we are left with even more plot holes and loose threads, and the film’s horror elements are deliberately placed in the backseat – a huge disappointment for those who are out for blood and scares. Had Landon found a way to make the masked killer more integral to the plot, this would feel more as an organic sequel. Compared to the first film where Tree is always racing against time, there’s less urgency here given that the story is busy delving into its comical and sci-fi elements.

It is Rothe’s delightful and versatile performance that mostly binds the franchise together. From a character perspective, the first film feels earned due to her redemptive arc from being an insensitive b*tch to a kick-ass heroine. This sequel gives her the opportunity to wrestle with more internal conflicts, thereby adding more emotional depth to Tree. Her frustration and anger remain to be played for amusement but unlike other ‘death’-centric films such as Final Destination, she never feels like a doomed pawn. The character feels empowered knowing that she’s in the joke and she can reset the day anytime she wanted to. Hence when it comes to her creative and brilliantly edited suicide montage – including a fashionable skydive in bikini, this is where the film truly shines as a dark comedy.

The Quantum Reactor. Broussard and Rothe in ‘Happy Death Day 2U.’

Happy Death Day 2U can definitely use another sitting in the screenplay editing room. While it has the big balls to subvert more expectations in its genre, it’s a flawed affair. Its sci-fi elements won’t fare against scrutiny (not that the film asks you to sweat on the details), it occasionally forgets the standard landmarks to be a slasher film, and it’s definitely at its weakest when it tries to force a soulmate level of romance between Tree and Carter (cue in those cringy kissing scenes!) Otherwise, it is one of those sequels that somehow retroactively improves the original. How fascinating is that.

A third film is teased through a Marvel-esque post-credit scene – an implication that the ride will only get more bizarre and much larger in scope from where it started. It’s something that I’ll definitely watch just to see how it all ends. But frankly, at this point, the franchise already starts to show strain from the ‘time loop fatigue’ that a third film could either keep the whole thing tighter or let it collapse under the weight of its ideas.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Christopher Landon, ‘Happy Death Day 2U‘ stars Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rachel Matthews, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Steve Zissis, and Charles Aitken. Run time: 100 minutes.

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