Happy Death Day 2U hits theaters this week, sending Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) back into a rut of living the same day over and over again. This time around she has to not only figure out who keeps killing her but also who’s targeting her friends.
The movie arrives at the same time “Russian Doll” is all the rage. The Netflix-exclusive series stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov, a young woman who keeps dying after leaving a party only to come back to the same moment and try again to figure out what keeps happening to her.
It’s a premise that has been around for a long while. The common reference point for such stories featuring time loops is 1993’s Groundhog Day, featuring Bill Murray as a conceited weatherman forced to endure small town living on the second of February for the better part of a decade until he learns to be a better person, driven in part by his desire to win over his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.
Still, there’s been an odd concentration of such stories of late. The first Happy Death Day came out the same year as Before I Fall, which had Zoey Deutch playing a young woman who has to figure out why she keeps dying and finds the answer is tied to how she and her friends treat others at school. Last year there was an episode of “Legends of Tomorrow” that had a character stuck in a loop and trying to prevent the ship she and the other characters are on from blowing up.
What, then, is behind the repeated use of the “stuck in a moment you can’t get out of” trope?
The answer, it seems, is in the burnout young people are feeling, perhaps more acutely than any previous generation.
That burnout was recently captured in a BuzzFeed profile that received widespread attention. In the essay the writer makes the case that Millennials – those who are currently somewhere between 24 and 36, give or take – are feeling the effects of being raised in a very different society than their parents and grandparents in a unique and troubling way. Economic uncertainty, fears of mass shootings and more are combining to create a generation that constantly feels pressured to improve itself and overcome the obstacles put in front of it without many of the social safety measures that used to be in place.
While burnout is by no means exclusively a Millennial concept and while it’s often more troublesome for people of color, Peterson’s essay identifies an interesting driver behind burnout: The overwhelming anxiety of the mundane. There’s so much going on at any given time and the consequences of failing at major endeavors so daunting that simply going to the Post Office becomes anxiety-inducing.
Along those same lines, author Malcolm Harris has posited it is demands of late-stage capitalism that are causing this burnout and anxiety, the unsettling reality that no matter how hard you work you still won’t be compensated in proportion to your value or productivity.
It is, in short, the fear of the every day that is creating such unease.
That’s where you see stories like Happy Death Day, Before I Fall, “Russian Doll” and others coming into play. All of these movies and shows have the same basic premise:
Every day will be just like the last one. No one but you notices or sees anything strange. It’s up to you to figure out what’s happening and break the cycle.
In that way it’s a similar phenomenon to the one that spurred so many books and subsequent movies where a lone savior – often a young woman – is the rallying point around which a revolution overthrows a tyrannical and oppressive government. Only instead of the protagonist living in an authoritarian dystopia, they are doomed to repeat the minutiae of everyday existence with no end in sight, the only option being to come to terms with the futility of existence and hope tomorrow offers more clues on what it is you’re meant to accomplish in this world.
That’s even more dispiriting than the Hunger Games-esque scenario in that the path to change and enlightenment isn’t as simple as overthrowing the despotic ruling class. In many of these stories there is no villain, no Big Bad to be slain as a means to end the cycle. The main character stuck in the loop just has to hope this time around they grow enough to get out, stumbling on the necessary insight by trial and error after countless unsuccessful attempts.
The different focus also reflects the isolation younger generations feel, a loneliness that results in many ways from the very technology designed to connect the world. There’s no rallying of an eclectic team of independent thinkers to the cause and no army to muster before the final showdown. One character must simply muddle through her struggle, doomed to constantly explaining what’s happening to the same people to gain their help, the process eating up precious minutes before the next death/reset.
What awaits these characters when (or if) they finally break through the time loop isn’t a better world or more ideal society, nor is it personal fame or riches. In many cases it’s not even an idyllic romance like the one Phil Connors was striving for in Groundhog Day. It’s simply to get to something different, something that’s not as maddeningly frustrating as having to relive the exact same day over and over again. They are simply hoping for a fresh start free from the constraints currently afflicting them and their reality.