"HAPPY DEATH DAY 2U" — 3½ stars — Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma; PG-13 (violence, language, sexual material and thematic elements
SALT LAKE CITY — Rarely does a sequel measure up to a quality original, but Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day 2U” might actually be better than its predecessor.
“2U” is the follow-up to 2017’s “Happy Death Day,” a comic-horror riff on the “Groundhog Day” formula that followed a pretty college co-ed as she relived the day of her murder over and over. As “2U” opens, Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is enjoying her new-and-improved life. Thanks to the events of the first film, she’s got a new boyfriend (Carter, played by Israel Broussard), a repaired relationship with her father and a positive, outgoing maturity to replace her selfish sorority girl identity. Things are a little awkward — Tree’s roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) turned out to be the killer, and Tree is named after a large chunk of wood — but life is moving on.
But down the dorm hall from Carter, trouble is brewing. A quantum mechanics student named Ryan (Phi Vu) is now stuck in a time loop of his own, complete with a new killer in the creepy baby mask, and when he reaches out for help, Tree finally discovers the source of her trouble: Ryan’s senior thesis project, an elaborate doomsday-looking device designed to slow down time.
When Ryan and Tree try to fire up the machine and fix his loop, Tree gets kicked all the way back in time to what she initially thinks is the beginning of the original film. But slowly she notices subtle differences: Carter is now dating the uptight president of Tree’s sorority (Rachel Matthews), Lori is no longer trying to kill her, and her mother — who had passed away years earlier — is still alive.
Even though Lori seems to have lost her murderous intent, someone else has Tree in their crosshairs, and “2U” follows our heroine as she tries to work her way out of this new and devious loop. The stakes have been raised and just as with the last experience, each subsequent “death” takes an increasing toll on Tree.
It’s an ambitious and complex plot for its genre, and in spite of a helpful recap of the first film early on, audiences really should make sure to see (or rewatch) the original “Happy Death Day” before taking on the sequel. But the effort is well worth it. “Happy Death Day 2U” is a blast.
Hardcore horror fans may be disappointed, but like with the original, “2U” veers much more toward the science fiction and comedy end of the spectrum, and though there are still elements of the slasher genre it parodies, they’re pretty minimal, and certainly at a PG-13 level.
Like with the first go-around, Rothe is an MVP protagonist, turning in an entertaining and spot-on performance as Tree. Her reaction when she initially believes she’s been kicked all the way back to the beginning of her ordeal is especially funny (if a bit profane); even Bill Murray never had to do that.Comment on this story
Though the “Groundhog Day” formula is still in play, Landon imbues “2U” with the kind of ramping tension and third act finale that actually feels a bit more like the “Back to the Future” trilogy, which gets referenced in this pop culture-savvy film. It may not be quite as spit-polished as its inspiration — certainly not the near-perfect original “Back to the Future” — but it’s a lot of fun.
Supposedly, Landon originally set out to make “Happy Death Day” a trilogy. Based on what he’s done with "2U," consider this an enthusiastic endorsement.
Rating explained: "Happy Death Day 2U" earns its PG-13 rating, and features slasher movie violence and scattered profanity, including a use of the F-word.