6:00 pm EDT, February 18, 2019

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ movie review: A sublime transformation of genre

In Happy Death Day 2U, director Christopher Landon transforms his playful slasher flick into a full blown sci-fi-horror-comedy-melodrama.

Even decades after the sub-genre was first pioneered in the 1980s, Hollywood continues to revisit the slasher movie. Just last year, popular horror movie studio Blumhouse produced the popular Halloween reboot that brought Michael back to wreak havoc on Haddonfield once again.

Among the recent forays into the slasher sub-genre is director Christopher Landon’s 2017 film Happy Death Day. Using the Groundhog Day trope, the film follows Tree (short for Theresa) as she learns she is stuck in a time loop that forces her to relive the day of her birthday and murder over and over again until she catches the killer. That relatively simple conceit buoyed by a stellar lead performance from Jessica Rothe gave way to a surprisingly effective and entertaining slasher flick.

Two short years later, Landon’s sequel Happy Death Day 2U hit theaters and the final product looks a little different than you might have imagined. Rather than create a new story that could work within the parameters of the slasher sub-genre, Landon infused this familiar story with entirely new genre elements, turning an inventive slasher comedy into a full blown sci-fi-horror-comedy-melodrama.

This expansion of genre represents a real risk; Landon surely could have continued this story without completely reinterpreting the narrative tone and genre elements established in the first film. Some fans of the first film will no doubt consider Happy Death Day 2U a sort of betrayal of what they signed up for — after all, the film is barely a slasher movie. However, for audiences willing to leave their expectations at the door, Happy Death Day 2U offers a wild ride unlike any other.

Happy Death Day 2U begins with a cold open centered on Ryan (Phi Vu), the day after Tree finally broke her death day loop. Ryan appeared in the first movie as a tertiary character, constantly getting kicked out of his dorm room by Carter (Israel Broussard) so that Tree has a place to sleep. In the first film, we were accustomed to seeing Ryan burst into his dorm room hoping to get back into his own bed. Now, we get to see where Ryan was before as the time loop shifts from Tree to him.

It turns out, however, that there’s more to Ryan than just being the roommate to the romantic lead. Ryan just so happens to be building a machine to slow down time. Except rather than slow it down, he unintentionally discovered a way to loop time. When Ryan attempts to reset things in order to break himself out of the loop, he accidentally reverts things so that Tree finds herself, once again, stuck in the same day. The only difference? She winds up in an entirely new universe.

The genius of this rather complicated conceit is that it takes the narrative landscape of the story — one it assumes the audience is with — and turns it on its head. Any concern that Happy Death Day 2U might just retread the familiar is quickly replaced by a curious fascination with how it bends the rules and transforms itself into something entirely different.

By eschewing the familiar beats from the first film and challenging those patterns with new genre elements, including the heavy sci-fi elements, Happy Death Day 2U reinvents itself for the better. The cold open that centers on Ryan stuck in a loop of his own takes a while to really warm up, but when it does, it more than justifies its slow beginning.

Happy Death Day 2U brings more than just sci-fi elements to this story; it adds a thick layer of melodrama that suits the film’s tongue in cheek attitude. Fans of the first film will remember that a significant component of Tree’s narrative arc revolved around her relationship with her father in the wake of her mother’s death. Happy Death Day 2U reminds us that Tree is still coping with that grief.

When her time loop spins her into a different universe, one where her mother is still alive, it complicates her decision to return to her universe (one where her mother is dead, but Carter is in love with her) or stay in this new one. Happy Death Day 2U leans hard (and maybe a little too hard) into this conflict. Tree has several emotional moments with her mother in this new universe that are played up heavy through the use of slo-mo and sweeping orchestral music. Allowing Tree to have this kind of catharsis is important to giving the film a real emotional center, but it sometimes gets in the way of the movie’s pacing and will likely be considered tedious by some.

Arguably the biggest obstacle with making a sequel to a movie like Happy Death Day is steering clear of fatigue — from both the audience and the story. If Landon had simply made a sequel where Tree gets trapped in another time loop, the overwhelming fatigue of watching a movie go through the same plot elemnents would have killed from the get go.

As such, reinvention was the only way forward for this story. The infusion of new genre elements and the expansion of Tree’s story succeeds in making Happy Death Day 2U stand on its own. Whereas the first film was all about Tree finding a way to stay alive and preserve her reality, this sequel challenges Tree to not only stay alive, but also to fight for the future she wants to be a part of.

All of this makes Happy Death Day 2U sound like a rather ambitious movie and it is! Some will, no doubt, label this ambition a weakness, but I disagree. There are plenty reasons I consider Happy Death Day 2U to be a success, but chief among them is stellar performance from Jessica Rothe.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that these films would not work as well as they do without the ferocious and contagious energy that Jessica Rothe brings to the role. She sells every minute of Tree’s journey; she thrives with each genre twist and tonal shift and rises to meet every demand of the complicated and convoluted script. She makes her catharsis our own becoming the perfect audience conduit for a story that would fail without her.

In the end, Happy Death Day 2U is perfect for those who aren’t afraid of seeing this property transform itself into something new. There are sequels that attempt to capitalize on the success of their predecessors and then there are those sequels that use their very existence to challenge audiences with something new and unexpected; Happy Death Day 2U exists confidently in the latter category and is all the better for it.

‘Happy Death Day 2U’ is now playing in theaters everywhere!

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