If there’s any sequel that warranted the right to repeat itself, it’s Happy Death Day 2U. Writer/director Christopher Landon’s promising continuation of his surprisingly spry time loop PG-13 horror-comedy smash Happy Death Day is given a liberating golden pass to ultimately remix its original and essentially remake his hit film — if he wished. Hell, I wouldn’t even put it past the filmmakers to re-release the first film just for the sake of an easy, if short-lived, laugh.
But thankfully, Landon uses this winning sequel opportunity to not merely redo his energetic and refreshingly inspired original film but challenge it instead — building upon its kooky, evergreen foundation and expand the story in scope, scale, genre, and tone. The result is a sequel that lives up to the promise delivered by the first film, and one that suggests that this newfound series could — fittingly enough — continue vibrantly for the foreseeable future.
Breaking the mold of the first film instantly with its first sequence, we begin Happy Death Day 2U by following the perspective of Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), the hapless dorm roommate of Carter Davis (Israel Broussard), rather than the plight of Tree Gelbman (the wonderful Jessica Rothe). Ryan wakes up in his messy car, jolted by a passing car’s blaring horn, while his own room is preoccupied by Carter and his newfound love, i.e. our previously grief-stricken protagonist.
As Ryan stumbles out of his car and continues throughout his nonchalant day at the university, he is met with a series of odd occurrences. For example, he nearly gets bitten by a hostile dog, an aggressive homeless man asks him for change, a man on a skateboard carrying coffee nearly runs into him and he has a confrontation with a man who (for whatever ungodly reason) is playing the trombone in the hallway the first thing in the morning (college can be a weird place).
Unable to get into his room, Ryan makes his way over to the lab, where he is working on a mysterious thesis project alongside Samar Ghosh (Suraj Sharma) and Dre Morgan (Sarah Yarkin). They are nearing the end of their studies and getting ready to finally put their bulky machine into motion when they are met with the unwelcome appearance of Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis from HBO’s “Togetherness”), a hard-nosed professor who doesn’t see the value in the machine and considers it to be more hassle and wasted money than it’s worth. But shortly after the science students are given this distressing news, Ryan is met with even more unfortunate circumstances: his death. Walking down a dark corridor, Ryan soon finds himself with a knife in his chest by an unknown killer with a familiar baby mask obscuring their face. Rather than meet his doom, though, Ryan finds himself — once again — in his car, jolted by the horn, harassed by the dog, interrogated by the aggravated bum and everything that literally just happened to him.
It’s full-on déjà vu, and Ryan is freaking out, man. But when he relays his distressing situation to Tree, she is all too familiar with his worries. As she tells him in a recap of the previous film’s events, Tree has relived the same day before too; it didn’t stop until the killer was defeated.
That killer turned out to be her disloyal roommate Lori Spengler (Ruby Modine) and she is dead and not looking to come back anytime soon — as far as Tree knows. But when Tree and Carter try to help Ryan in his time of need, the three of them soon make a shocking revelation. And when they find themselves located in the room of this field experiment blasting everyone with blue waves of time-altering forces, Tree makes a terrifying discovery: she’s once again living her birthday, September 18th, and trapped inside the time loop again. But when she tries to stop the cycle and return to her normal life, Tree realizes that this is more than a time loop: she has unwittingly found herself in a completely different timeline altogether, with shocking surprises.
Happy Death Day was a fun-loving, joyfully silly romantic comedy/dark college comedy that was disguised as a slasher horror flick by unsuspecting Blumhouse audiences. It’s also, fittingly enough, a film that gets even better upon rewatch, as I was delighted to learn. What could’ve been another lifeless rehash of the near-perfect formula of Groundhog Day turned out to be an impressively agile, rambunctiously spirited and gleefully self-aware new addition to the fairly repetitious genre — as well as a marvelous showcase for Rothe. And when it comes to Happy Death Day 2U, those qualities transfer into this newest installment, along with the benefit of taking the criticisms to the original film to heart while still respecting all the things it did so well.
This sequel is more ambitious, enthused, expansive, polished and eager to please than the first. But with its inclusions of sci-fi elements and desires to turn this second film into more of an ensemble piece rather than a solo star-making centerpiece for Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day 2U welcomes the possibility of stretching itself bigger and wilder, sillier, spunkier and even more self-aware. It results in a second film that’s not quite as neat and compact as the first, but it also proves to be a more accessible, engrossing and emotional film as well. Unlike Shyamalan’s recent sequel Glass, Landon’s follow-up is a wide-reaching sequel that’s also aware of its limitations, but it doesn’t allow itself to be concerned and deterred by its potential restrictions. If anything, it’s more emboldened and invigorated than it was the first time around, appropriately, and it proves to be another victory with the potential to become something even more bonkers next time.
And while it doesn’t work in every way it hopes to, it’s so consistently able to push itself and bounce off its various foundation of ideas that win you over constantly and willfully. It’s a sequel that prides itself in finding new ways to pivot and new avenues to explore, while still keeping true to what made it such a surprise success the first time around. In that sense, it is similar to how Scream 2 worked its way to similar heights as its own horror-comedy predecessor — if not quite match them. Landon is fully aware of the time-hopping potential in this franchise, and he makes the most of it. Even within the confines of its sometimes-restricting PG-13 rating.
With that said, Happy Death Day 2U also succeeds in not fetishizing the constant deaths of its main character — though there is an entertaining suicide-laced montage in the middle that might call those comments into question for some viewers. And understandably so. It’s a tricky balance to uphold, and it’s something the first film did better than this sequel does. But the consistently zany elements of ‘2U’ prove to be a great benefit in keeping this new movie restrained from reality and in its own heightened sense of poppy, pulpy goofiness. In fact, there are even a few moments in this particular film where Tree appears to be aware that she’s in a movie.
And that brings us back to Jessica Rothe, the actress who, once again, proves to be the glue that keeps this newly-minted franchise together in splendidly sensational fashion. Having already proven herself to be a wonderfully versatile and expendable actress, Rothe’s return to the role of Tree doesn’t find her in the spotlight quite as often as she was the first time around, but she continues to make the most of it and brings such a wealth of comedic and emotional sincerity. She’s such a wonderful actress. I truly hope these movies provide her with more rich opportunities.
Having proven itself triumphant during its first spin, it’s certainly easy to see how Happy Death Day 2U could’ve slummed it and renewed the cycle in a fashion similar to the first. But it’s to the benefit of Christopher Landon and his cast that he chose to challenge himself and provide a sequel that’s enjoyably more daring and determined than the original. The result is another likable and lovingly loopy sequel that, similar to the original, you’ll be happy to revisit soon.
Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in The Playlist.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.