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Happy Death Day 2U

I was deeply disappointed with Happy Death Day. I so badly wanted to like this creative slasher flick with a brilliant premise, featuring a score from one of my favorite composers. Alas, I simply couldn’t get past the paper-thin and hopelessly stereotypical characters. How could such a lazy and brain-dead script result from such a creatively batshit premise?

That said, I was still on board with Happy Death Day 2U from the moment I heard it was coming. For one thing, a sequel meant that Tree (played once again by Jessica Rothe) would start out as the sympathetic and battle-hardened protagonist she was at the end of the previous film, and we could skip over the whole development arc in which we had to wait for her to stop being a garbage-fire bitch. But more than that, the trailer promised a sequel that played into the first movie’s greatest strength, building on the premise to go into wilder, freakier territory.

And for once, the sequel didn’t disappoint.

The movie opens with Ryan (Phi Vu), a minor character from the first film. As it turns out, he and some classmates are responsible for building the quantum mechanical plot device that caused all the strange power blackouts and time loops in the previous movie. And of course nobody (least of all the students themselves) is entirely clear why a bunch of misfit college students were somehow able to actually succeed in breaking the space-time continuum.

The first act is pretty much more of the same, except that it’s Ryan stuck in the time loop and our baby-masked killer is now after him for some strange reason. Then some weird shenanigans happen (For a long list of reasons, I won’t even try to recap them here.) and our plot device jettisons Tree back into her birthday time loop. And here’s the kicker: Now she’s in a parallel universe. Sure, the day still plays out more or less the same, but with a few small yet crucial differences. The old characters have new personalities, the relationships between them are totally different, some characters that were dead are now alive and vice versa, etc.

As a direct result, Tree now has a totally different killer on the loose. So now she has to solve this new permutation of the old established murder mystery, save the victims she knows are going to die, help to reconfigure the plot device so the time loop closes, and get back to her home universe.

On top of all that, Tree has to decide if she even wants to go back to her home universe. Without getting into details and spoilers, there are a lot of trade-offs to consider with regard to who is still alive and where Tree is in the new and old timelines. Which is the better timeline, where would Tree be happier, what is she willing to give up, and where would she do the most good?

This is a frankly genius way of using the premise to explore death, love, grief, renewal, forgiveness, the passage of time, and other themes that lend themselves superbly to the premise. Moreover, it helps to advance Tree’s development into a genuinely compelling protagonist, expanding on her previous arc in an elegant way. All of this leads to moments that are genuinely moving in a way that was never done (or maybe even possible) in the previous film.

That said, while Tree and her love interest aren’t nearly as boring or flat as they were last time, we still have a shit-ton of cartoonishly lazy stereotypes in the supporting cast. But even that is more acceptable here because the whole premise is so much more heightened, and advancing/explaining it takes up so much more of the screen time away from these annoying support characters. Somehow, the film’s unique blend of slasher horror and sci-fi comedy meshes with the thin characterization in a way that it didn’t in the previous film.

This brings us to the horror element, which manifests in some peculiar ways in this go-round. The movie is considerably less interested in the identity and motivations of our new Babyface (I don’t know if that’s the official sanctioned name for this franchise’s slasher, but it’s the one I’m going with), probably because he’s not the main threat our protagonist is struggling against. Instead, Babyface is treated as something awful that may or may not happen to Tree’s friends and loved ones in this new timeline. As such, it’s an open question as to whether she’s willing or able to stop Babyface before he kills again, and whether she’s truly capable of saving everyone she cares about.

This leads me to the other huge factor in terms of stakes: There’s still an unknown limit as to how many times Tree can die and come back. The first movie established that Tree gets noticeably weaker every time she comes back, with some lingering pain and damage from every death. And by the time the climax rolls around, Tree will have endured two movies’ worth of repeated deaths. Thus the stakes are much higher and more immediate than they ever were in the first movie — even without the potentially cosmic stakes of fucking around with space and time, or the personal stakes of maybe never going home again.

Happy Death Day 2U is everything I had hoped this franchise would be from the outset. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s endlessly creative, and the ingenious premise is explored in diabolically clever ways. It’s really quite fascinating how the filmmakers balance moments of genuine pathos with moments of over-the-top stereotypically lazy goofiness.

The only downside is that there’s no way this movie could possibly stand on its own. Yes, we do get a brief recap at the start, but that’s nowhere near good enough. While I really do believe that this sequel makes the previous movie retroactively better (and I mean that as astronomical praise), I also don’t believe that the promise of “it gets better later on” is a legitimate reason to continue a subpar series. If you didn’t like the first movie (and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t), I can’t guarantee that the second movie will be good enough for your liking, even if it was to mine.

The best I can do is something I never would’ve thought of doing a year and a half ago: Recommend that you give the first movie a watch if you haven’t already, then gauge your appetite and see if you’re ready for seconds.

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