Happy Death Day 2U (2019) by Christopher Landon
Review by Logan Kenny
(Contains vague spoilers for the films Serenity and Marjorie Prime, as well as detailed spoilers for Happy Death Day 2U.)
Near the end of the film Serenity, the protagonist stands alone in a world that is disintegrating around him. The nature of existence is revealed as fragile and he tries to cling onto whatever he can before it fades. Later, he sees an image of his child at the end of a dock. He embraces him quietly, clinging onto him like he’s the only thing that can make life worth this inescapable pain. Does it matter if he’s the real version of a child? Is the illusion enough if everything is identical to the memory of the one you love? If you feel their arms around you, hear their voice in your ear, and can’t tell the difference between the old and the new, the question (if it remains important) is whether there’s a distinction. The reverse is true for the child: if you can create a version of someone you’ve lost, is it worth giving up everything else for the chance to keep it with you?
Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime grapples with the theme of memory and identity in similar and immensely more complicated ways. The film is built off the idea of artificiality – of creating new versions (“Primes”) of those you’ve lost based off of the images of them in your mind and in your memory. As memories are susceptible to influence, the Primes become the ideal image of the past and eventually grow into separate entities from the people whose faces and memories they inhabit. The artificial becomes real, and their imprinted memories become simulations of feeling, the principle of emotion. Their pain and loss aches the same way as those who they are designed off of. Does that make them human? Does that make them just a version of the father/husband you’ve lost? Can we as mortals ever truly embrace the eternal or suspended existence of something that we can’t live without?
Happy Death Day 2U is, on the surface, not about any of these things. It is a sequel that continues the original’s premise of “Groundhog Day as a slasher-comedy” and re-invigorates it into a wacky science-fiction inspired tale about identity and the power of love. It is an inherently silly movie which is frequently illogical and designed to entertain. It has strong performances, great comic timing, incredible visual gags and setpieces and manages to propel the IP beyond what could have just been another lazy rehash. It is furthered by another incredible leading performance by Jessica Rothe, who manages to create such a layered and vibrant protagonist while also nailing every single emotional beat. Her face is intensely expressive, making her perfect for the more outlandish moments of comedy. In moments where Tree (Rothe) is subverting the expectations brought on by her archetype, she manages to make sure that the core of the character is ever present.
A lesser performer could have easily made Tree to be a character that exists as a cipher for whatever purpose the script needs. She excels past those potential limitations and manages to embed this film with an overwhelming amount of emotion and care. You believe that she’s a real person standing in front of you – your suspension of disbelief is maintained eloquently for moments where she’s on screen. For a while, all you experience is her pain and frustration and love. Rothe is a star in the making and I hope that she keeps getting the opportunities to do brilliant work like this, but the film itself goes beyond just being a character study or following the easy path that its predecessor laid out for it. It’s also about the meaning of death and what it means to be the survivor – the fear and curse of being the person that decides what happens to the people you love, having an endless amount of time to ruminate over their fates. Every second you’re awake, it haunts you: the future guilt or the possibility of regret. The real villain of Happy Death Day 2U is being forced against your will to play a version of god and deal with the consequences for the rest of your life.
Horror movies in the mainstream have handled the trauma of loss and watching the people you love die for decades. The Scream franchise is explicitly about the mental toll that Sidney Prescott goes through because of her continuous link to death. The post traumatic stress and paranoia and inability to create new meaningful connections are part of the arcs of each installment, she cannot escape the loss that surrounds her. Eventually, someone else will wear the mask and more people that she loves will die. She can’t save them all. It’s not in her power to make everything work. The Halloween franchise – particularly in the two Rob Zombie installments – have also been about the inescapable torment of trauma and decay. Laurie Strode is unable to cope with the barbaric acts of violence she witnessed and the losses of those close to her. With every subsequent death, she loses a part of her soul. The films are about the mental degradation of someone constantly forced to see the people they love die, having no power to control it or stop it. You don’t always have the power.
Happy Death Day 2U is about having the power. It’s about the horror of choosing a reality that isn’t yours for the image of someone you love, or going back to your world where you’re tainted by that loss and can’t overcome it. You don’t have a choice anymore to remain impartial, to accept the fate of the universe. The central conflict in Happy Death Day 2U is Tree ending up in a time loop similar to the one in the last movie, only this time in a new universe. Things seem the same for a while until the differences start to force their way in. Some are bad (her boyfriend back home is dating another member of her sorority), but one is good. Her dead mother is alive here, never getting in a deadly accident and never leaving her alone. The image of her is no longer just kept in photographs or old video clips watched over and over again, but being able to hear her voice directly in your ear, feel her arms around you. Something that you thought would be reduced to memories for the rest of existence is here, right in front of you. The mother you remember. She isn’t yours exactly; another Tree has this mother, without the knowledge of how crushing her loss would be yet. But for a while, this is real. This is worth giving up your old life for. The idea of spending more time with someone you love is something that the grieving would kill for.
Resurrection has been a theme for centuries of storytelling and myth primarily because of grief. There’s the tale of Orpheus journeying to the Underworld at the risk of everything to bring his love back, or the curse of Lazarus, being cursed to die again after experiencing the agonies of death once before. The suffering are desperate to have more time with someone long gone. These stories typically end in tragedy or horror: mortality isn’t something you can just erase or morph to your liking. Death comes back to destroy you or the image of those you’ve lost. The beautiful memories that come with distance from loss; they don’t happen in the stories of cheating death. Bodies rot and transform into hideous figures or, in the case of Orpheus, the guilt that consumes your soul of failing to be the person that your love needed. Not being able to let go amplifies the tragedy.
In the digital age, in regards to Serenity and Marjorie Prime amongst many other things, death doesn’t seem to be the permanent end of an image. The digitised version of Peter Cushing in Rogue One props up a corpse with computer generated effects to ensure his image still makes money. The holograms of famous dead celebrities, sent on tour with programming to make them seem real, are becoming more popularised. Sophy Romvari tackled this theme of loss and rejection of death with her brilliant short film Norman Norman, the curse of resurrection has acclimated to modern times. It is now no longer the bringing back of those we’ve lost as bodies, but soulless vessels that appear to be like them. Death has lost its meaning to many; death is just something that happens that corporations can use to sell albums and have films made without the struggles of managing a breathing performer. As image becomes eternal, we become terrified of no longer being able to see it. Are these examples bringing humanity to the image to help with letting go, to create something new out of the image of old, or just to take some comfort in a familiar face before the end? That’s such an understandable feeling and I’m sure I’d take the opportunity to spend more seconds with my aunt if I could, regardless of if she’s exactly the person she was when she died. Sometimes, image is enough.
Other times it isn’t. On a national scale, it is exploitation. On a personal one, it might be as well. We are all fallible and none of us can live up all of our desires of what we should be impeccably. The curse of resurrection is that despite all the fables about how it leads to decay, most of us would leap head first into the abyss anyway. We should let the dead be dead, letting them rest in whatever lies beyond our existence and cherishing their memories for the time we had with them, continuing those stories and spreading them on through generations so that they’re known to people who never got to feel the softness of their touch. We should. Maybe we can’t. Maybe it is the curse of humanity to always try and find ways to cheat the laws of nature.
In Happy Death Day 2U, the image is just as real as the memory. A living breathing human being. The same voice, the same idiosyncrasies and feeling. Her hugs are just like the ones from your mother that passed. She’s real, but she’s not yours. It doesn’t mean that the feelings aren’t real, that the loss of saying goodbye again isn’t there. But Happy Death Day 2U possibly has the most beautiful view form of resurrection in recent memory. Instead of making it about a desperation to cheat your reality and write your loss out of this history, it’s about cherishing the time you have left – the chance to properly say goodbye. Tree has the arc of anyone grieving; now she finally has the opportunity to cope with her trauma and think about all the beautiful moments she had to share. She gets to know her mother as more than just an image, and now she can move into the future. There is no punishment for the human need of wishing you could reverse fate; she has suffered enough in these movies. She gets a happy ending, even if it isn’t with the woman she hoped would never leave her.
In Serenity, everything falls apart but at least you have the image of someone you love to keep you afloat. In Marjorie Prime, the images become conscious and essentially become new versions of those they were designed to replace. In Happy Death Day 2U, the image gives you closure. Maybe everything will fall apart again. More loss will happen in your life and it will hurt just as much as the first time. Everything will pile up on you at some point and breathing becomes difficult. Life is hard and losing people that help you get through it makes it even more arduous. But at least you had them. At least you got to have time and make connections and feel that love in your heart. Everything is impermanent at least in this reality, but as long as you live, there is something in your core that remembers how it feels to be loved and to love. Loss is the hardest thing we can go through but one day, you’ll be sitting down somewhere and suddenly remember the image of a friend or a parent. Your mind goes all over the place, leading down times you hadn’t thought about in years. There’s a tinge of sadness about not being able to call them and share these memories, the ache of their death lingers in your chest. But then, you smile, being so grateful for those fragments of time. You just smile.