Landon: Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
Films about characters stuck in time loops have become more common in recent years, but sequels about characters stuck in time loops are still a relatively novel prospect. In that sense, Happy Death Day 2U breaks fairly new ground, returning to the characters of Happy Death Day, but presenting the time loop of the original film from a slightly different perspective. Once again, Tree Gelbman, played by Jessica Rothe, is the main character, and once again she finds herself doomed to experience her birthday over and over again. This time, however, she’s launched into an alternative universe where she continues to experience the same day, but in a slightly different version of her life. The disorientation of repeating the same day is now compounded by the disorientation of this alternative day, creating a diffuse temporality that is even more comic and picaresque than the first release.
While Happy Death Day was a time loop film, it was also a slasher film. The two intersected in an unusual way, since the time loop element eventually eclipsed the slasher element, signalling the waning of the slasher as a figure capable of generating horror in the 2010s. Once upon a time, slashers were figures where distortions in socially mandated space and time became evident, and where the social construction of space and time also became evident. Alternately compressing and distending space and time, the slasher made the present moment unthinkable, at least as we socialize and understand it, but that role seems less relevant in a world where digital technology has splintered time into so many diffuse and disparate temporalities. As a result, Happy Death Day 2U moves even further away from horror, occupying a position that is more horror-adjacent, and closer to both romantic comedy and science fiction. At the same time, Happy Death Day 2U feels less invested in cinema, and in the slasher as a cinematic vehicle, often playing as a television episode as much as a fully-fledged film, frequently reminding me of the campy Secret Life of Alex Mack.
With Happy Death Day 2U, then, Landon seems to have tapped into the next generation of time loop films. Rather than focus on the sublimity or the terror of multiple timelines, this is just another day in the multiverse, especially once Tree realises that her situation doesn’t reflect any great cosmic agenda, but is “just some big scientific fluke.” In the process, the time loop is domesticated, not merely because there appear to be multiple people in it, but because most people seem to accept it as a condition and possibility of the world they live in. Upon discovering that the loop has been created by a scientific experiment at her university, Tree realises that she can only escape the loop by figuring out the correct equation to reverse the experiment. In order to do so, she needs to accumulate more than a day’s knowledge, meaning that she has to live the day over and over again in order to eventually escape it, and that she has to explain her situation to the scientists managing the experiment each day. In typical time loop films, people not experiencing the time loop tend to express scepticism, incredulity or fear when the person who is being “looped” explains their situation. Yet on every day Tree re-meets the scientists, they accept her situation in a fairly matter-of-fact way, and do their best to assist her with accumulating that day’s data.
This process of data collection is one of several key points where Landon appears to be reinventing John Hughes’ body of work as a precursor to the time loop. Most of Hughes’ films revolve around “what if” moments, points of narrative potentiality that are never fully contained by the specific story where they occur. Within Hughes’ lexicon, the montage sequence is typically where this potentiality – this sense of multiple planes of space and time beyond the story – manifests itself, so there’s something peculiarly poetic about the montage sequence that Landon uses to evoke Tree’s daily grind at collecting data from the scientists. Specifically, this sequence captures a disconnect at the heart of montage itself, and especially at the heart of montage as it was revived in the 1980s. While the sequence ostensibly unifies Tree’s experiences into a linear timeline, it also shifts across timelines, not so much taking her from day to day as cutting across different temporalities within which she is living this same day in an infinitely and infinitesimally different sequence of iterations.
In that sense, Tree’s experience of the time loop speaks to a disconnect at the heart of seriality itself. As a serial experience, the time loop provides Tree with a certain modicum of continuity as she moves from one day to the next, and yet it also depends upon a certain amount of discontinuity as well. In that contested zone between the continuity of each day, the continuity between days, and the broader discontinuity between days, lies the essence of the time loop, which also plays out at the juncture between the continuity of stand-alone textual experiences, like a film or a television episode, and the broader discontinuity between serial film and television experiences that is required for seriality to ramify in the first place. Put more bluntly, the time loop situates Tree in the quasi-serial space that has collapsed so much televisual and cinematic experience in the present moment, which is perhaps why Happy Death Day 2U sometimes feels like a stand-alone film and sometimes feels like the next episode in a television series, alternately closer and more distant from the original film that a conventional stand-alone sequel would be. For that reason, Landon’s film often reminded me of the Netflix series Russian Doll, which sets out to domesticate the multiverse – and this strange and diffuse space of quasi-serial attachment – in a similar way.
Within that process, classical suspense remains, but it no longer has the ability to manipulate space and time as it did during its heyday in the 80s and 90s. In fact, classical suspense feels more and more like a period effect as the film proceeds, with Landon taking us through a rapid pastiche of suspenseful spaces that all seem comparatively staid within with the broader multiverse of the action. In the first, we’re taken through the basement of the university, past a series of clanking pipes, and then into a storage space filled with baby masks – the mask that the killer wears – only for the killer to be suddenly and abortively revealed. Later on, we’re taken through the floor of a hospital that is under construction, replete with plastic sheets hanging up at odd angles, and yet once again also leading to an underwhelming slasher moment. Throughout all these cinematic citations, the hospital, the university campus and the suburban house recur, time and again, as spaces where space and time was once dismantled by horror cinema, but which now seem to speak more to the conceptions of space and time horror cinema was resisting, rather than the resistance itself.
As a result, horror itself like an outdated mode by the end of the film, as Landon instead invokes a semi-recognisable reality, a reality that has become inherently uncanny, and never feels quite real. Sometimes that semi-reality is drawn from the language of the multiverse, but it is also drawn from the language of gaming, since Tree feels even more like an avatar this time around, especially during the montage sequences that follow her efforts to turn back the scientific experiment. Whereas earlier time loop films were suspicious that everyday life had been gamified, Happy Death Day 2U starts from the assumption that everyday life has been gamified, and follows Tree as she figures out what kind of game she wants to play, or what generic cues are likely to win the game as it currently stands. As the film veers vertiginously from thriller, to science fiction, to romantic comedy, to teen melodrama, Tree’s name feels like an emblem for the film as a while, as every scene appears to be on the verge of branching out, arboreally, into a new proliferation of reality, if she doesn’t manage and manifest it in exactly the right way. In the end, Happy Death Day 2U doesn’t really offer suspense so much as a line of light from suspense, since while the slasher may still be present, and suspense may still be present, neither of them really ramify. More a point of departure than a focus in itself, suspense is still in the film, but is somehow always happening elsewhere, until it finally fades into the background, and is left to do its own thing, as we are propelled into a spatiotemporal scheme that is too emergent and unsettling to be defamiliarised by suspense, but too quotidian and familiar to breed a suspense of its own – a quasi-serial sequel that never stops quite long enough to look back.
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