'Happy Death Day,' 'Russian Doll' and the Endless Appeal of 'Groundhog Day'

The 26-year-old movie is still inspiring creative new stories.

There’s a popular fan theory that suggests Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is actually the end result of a Groundhog Day scenario, meaning that, just like Bill Murray in the 1993 comedy classic, Matthew Broderick’s Ferris has to experience the same day over and over until he finally gets everything right.

This might explain how Ferris sails effortlessly through so many close calls during his day playing hooky, but it also raises an interesting question: What happened on all the days he got something wrong? How many times did Ferris mess up, commit suicide just to find out what would happen, or simply get caught by Principal Rooney and wind up in detention? (It also makes me wonder what other fictional characters might be Groundhog Daying; my favorite variation of this theory is Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.)

The original Groundhog Day may have come out exactly 26 years ago today, but the concept it helped popularize isn’t going anywhere. This month alone, Netflix released Russian Doll, an eight-episode series about a woman forced to relive her 36th birthday party on an endless loop, while Blumhouse Productions’ Happy Death Day 2U hits theaters this week, spinning the decades-old concept into not one but two horror movies about a sorority girl forced to experience her own murder on repeat.

Both offer a fresh take on the still-popular genre, tweaking the formula just enough to create something new and unique that reveals why the original Groundhog Day still appeals to us in 2019, even if it’s upbeat tone feels out of date by today’s standards.

Light spoilers for Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U ahead.

Watch the trailer for 'Russian Doll'

What is it about a Groundhog Day scenario that travels so well? It’s a blank canvas. Any character can be the star of their own Groundhog Day, as long as they’re interesting enough to keep our attention while the rest of the world stops spinning around them.

More important, Groundhog Daying represents the chance to get everything right, if only for one perfect day. Sure, you might be stuck in a time loop for weeks, months, or even years, but every repeated day is an opportunity to avoid stepping in that puddle, or substitute whatever awkward comment you’d usually make with something clever you’d normally only think of after the conversation was over.

Bill Murray might have been stuck in Punxsutawney for 10 years, but he also learned how to play the piano and became an expert ice sculptor. So, worth it?

The two latest entries in the Groundhog Day genre push the idea in bold new directions. In both cases, it’s no longer enough to simply get everything right to break the spell. You have to figure out what caused the time loop and fix it. In Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) only starts to solve that mystery after meeting a total stranger going through the same experience.

Meanwhile, in Happy Death Day 2U, we learn that a scientific experiment caused the time loop from the original movie. So when Tree (Jessica Rothe) starts reliving the same day, again, she realizes the only way to fix it is by solving complicated equations (yes, really, there’s even a delightful math montage).

Both stories also remove much of the fun of Groundhog Daying. Unlike in the original, messing around in an endless time loop isn’t an option here. As Nadia gets closer to solving Russian Doll’s mystery, the time loop fights back and the world starts to disappear around her. In Happy Death Day 2U, Tree gets weaker with each death until she worries the next one might be her last.

happy death day 2u
'Happy Death Day 2U'

By cutting out the biggest benefit of living in a time loop, the grim truth of Groundhog Day comes into sharp focus. If your time is still limited, the worst possible situation is being stuck in the same day on repeat. Every small annoyance becomes a blaring siren, and even your best friend might quickly become the last person you ever want to see once you’ve heard them make the same joke one thousand times. Without the promise of infinite chances, Groundhog Daying loses much of its luster.

Maybe that’s because 26 years later, Bill Murray’s torturous ordeal in Groundhog Day is starting to look like an overly optimistic scenario. After all, even if you were somehow stuck in a time loop, who really has time to master the piano? Without a more powerful motivation like death, you’d probably end up wasting most of that extra time anyway. I know I would.

Despite that dark dose of reality, the worlds of Russian Doll and Happy Death Day 2U both offer a ray of hope at the end of the Groundhog Day tunnel. Each story presents a problem worth solving and a solution that’s within reach. There’s a way out of this waking nightmare and back to a world that makes sense.

It might not be Ferris Bueller singing “Twist and Shout” in the middle of a parade, but in 2019, with the real world rapidly falling apart around us, we’ll take what we can get.

Happy Death Day 2U hits theaters on February 13. Russian Doll is streaming now on Netflix.

Russian Doll
Russian Doll
Media via Netflix, Columbia Pictures , Blumhouse, Blumhouse, Netflix