The goofy 2017 horror comedy Happy Death Day seems like one of the least likely movies to spawn an intricate sci-fi franchise, but writer-director Christopher Landon makes a surprisingly convincing case for just that in Happy Death Day 2U.
The first movie found self-centered sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) living the same day over and over while being stalked (and repeatedly killed) by a masked murderer, and used its simple time-loop premise for a series of fun, self-aware jokes and some stock life lessons for its protagonist. The sequel tones down the horror elements considerably, focusing instead on a pseudo-scientific explanation for the time-loop phenomenon, which soon throws Tree right back into reliving her birthday again and again.
First there's a sort of fake-out opening, set on the following day, as original supporting character Ryan (Phi Vu) experiences his own death day reset, getting murdered by the mysterious killer in the creepy baby mask. It turns out that Ryan and his nerdy lab partners Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin) have been working on a device meant to slow time down, which has inadvertently created a series of time loops instead.
The efforts to set things right only throw Tree back a day into the past, undoing most of the plot and character development from the first movie. While it's amusing to see the fed-up Tree react to many of the same situations and characters now that she knows exactly what's going on, it's a little disappointing that the movie has to take a step back in order to move forward.
At the same time, Landon (returning as director and taking over as writer from Scott Lobdell) strives not to just repeat the same plot, and he makes some significant adjustments to Tree's world that go along with a bunch of techno-babble about quantum theory and alternate universes. That allows for some slightly different (but related) life lessons this time, and for returning characters to fit into different roles in the narrative. There's still a deranged killer on the loose, but the urgency of discovering and unmasking the killer runs a distant second to the efforts to figure out the mechanics of Ryan's time machine and close the time loop once and for all.
Last time, characters made explicit reference to Groundhog Day, and here the main reference point is the Back to the Future series. The plot gets a bit convoluted as it goes along, and certain elements that seem important at first end up being dropped or dismissed rather abruptly. The climax involves a ridiculous "heist" straight out of a dopey college comedy, and Landon favors slightly broader humor this time. But he also gives Tree some tender moments, both with love interest Carter (Israel Broussard) and with her parents, even though they're mostly just variations on the emotional beats of the first movie.
Even when the plotting is shaky, Rothe's fantastic performance sells every twist and turn in Tree's journey, keeping her an active, take-charge heroine with sharp wit and undeniable charm. The supporting players, many of them upgraded from smaller roles in the previous movie, are also consistently entertaining, and there's an appealing teamwork element to the story that sets this movie apart from its predecessor. Landon finds new creative and funny ways for Tree to die (mainly in an energetic montage similar to one in the original), and even if the violence is more cartoonish than scary, it still adds occasional suspense to the story. A mid-credits scene teases an even further expansion of the franchise's world, which is both completely absurd and unexpectedly enticing. ♦