While the first “Happy Death Day” was a delightful surprise – full of heart and ingenuity, if lacking in gore – its sequel feels like nearly as much of a revelation. That shock isn’t because of its horror movie elements like jump scares and multiple murders; it’s because unlike its predecessor it isn’t even primarily a horror movie. “Happy Death Day 2U” still trades in the trappings of genre, but slides the franchise sideways into science fiction.
By nature, the sequel should find it easy to re-create what we liked about the originalbecause of the time loop that Tree (Jessica Rothe) was caught in in the first movie. But the real feat of “Happy Death Day 2U” is its refusal to take that easier route while still pleasing fans of the first one. Instead of Tree’s now-familiar routine, this movie begins with the roommate of Tree’s boyfriend, Carter (Israel Broussard) -- Ryan (Phi Vu) -- now stuck in a loop of his own and repeatedly dying like Tree was in the first film.
Now, Tree, Carter, Ryan and two of Ryan’s fellow quantum mechanics students (Suraj Sharma and Sarah Yarkin) have to figure out how to get things back to normal using the same science that broke time in the first place. They’re fighting against time, a new killer and an angry Dean Bronson (the always welcome Steve Zissis) to find the solution.
The idea that Tree’s predicament is based in science switches things up a bit and allows returning director Christopher Landon — and the audience — to have a different kind of fun. It’s gleefully geekier this go-round, from a prominently featured Nikola Tesla bobblehead to an always-in-progress game of “Settlers of Catan.”
The previous film called itself out as the spiritual successor to “Groundhog Day,” and its sequel acknowledges its debt to the “Back to the Future” trilogy at every turn. Bear McCreary’s score nods to Alan Silvestri’s classic compositions, and there’s an enviably cool Mondo “Back to the Future” poster on the wall. Even “The Power of Love” makes an appearance here, but instead of a song by Huey Lewis and the News, this time it’s the message of “Happy Death Day 2U” itself.
What sets “Happy Death Day” and its follow-up apart from similar genre fare is that emphasis on love, as well as kindness and being a better person. They’re remarkably sincere for movies that feature literally dozens of deaths, a number of which are played for laughs. “Happy Death Day 2U” retains its predecessor’s simultaneously gonzo and PG-13 approach to violence, offering death after death but never really showing much. An early shot of Ryan picking his nose is probably the goriest bit we get here.
That tone generally works, not just thanks to Landon’s direction, but also largely because of Rothe. She’s one of the most magnetic new actresses on screen, equally capable of showing vulnerability and pain as well as a blithe, easy humor. Returning to the loop unhinges Tree, and it’s a blast to watch Rothe’s character freak out, particularly when everyone around her is confused. The script from Landon would do better to develop more of the expanded list of characters, but it’s hard to blame him for wanting to focus on the film’s biggest strength.
Like most sequels, “Happy Death Day 2U” can’t quite replicate the feelings of joy and discovery of the original, but Landon deserves credit for varying the tune, while still playing the hits that will please the fans of its predecessor.
‘Happy Death Day 2U’
Rated: PG-13, for violence, language, sexual material and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release