Netflix’s new film, “See You Yesterday” (2019) is a fresh take on sci-fi time-travel tropes that radically shifts gears into unexpectedly heavy social commentary… sort of a fusion of “Back To The Future” and producer Spike Lee’s own “Do The Right Thing.”
Expanded from director Stefan Bristol and cowriter Frederica Bailey’s short film into a still-economical 84-minute running time, “See You Yesterday” never overstays its welcome, yet services its core characters well.
Taking place in modern-day Brooklyn, high school science prodigies Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) have created a pair of portable backpack-based machines that can theoretically open 10-minute windows for traveling back in time a day or so. The film’s opening sees the two kids taking their backpacked devices out for temporal test jumps. The machines sputter, fail and begin to spark. CJ is appropriately pissed, and she let’s us know it.
Right off, you realize this is not some generic Disney Channel family flick…
The two high school geniuses’ greatest ambitions at this point in the story are to impress the judges at the upcoming science expo and possibly earn scholarships into MIT or Morehouse. CJ also tries to avoid the unwanted advances of Puerto Rican science geek Eduardo (Jonathan Nieves) who is the closest thing this film has to a George McFly (an unlucky geek in love).
As CJ debates her final grade with her science teacher, Mr. Lockhart (a very welcome cameo by “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox), he tries to warn her about the inherent danger in developing a new technology without any forethought to its implications. Best line of this scene has Michael J. Fox muttering to himself, “Time travel…great Scott.”
Perfecting their devices, the two teens try again, choosing to go back in time one day to June 26, 2019. Things quickly go south as strong-headed CJ’s temper gets the better of her. She interferes in an altercation at a mini-mart that her previous day’s self had with an arrogant ex-boyfriend, resulting in his getting hit by a car and breaking his arm…that was something that didn’t happen before. Grateful that no one was killed in this time-travel snafu, Sebastian warns CJ that it could’ve been a lot worse. With their 10 minute window closing, the two jump back to the present.
Days later, after a 4th of July cookout, CJ’s older brother Calvin (Astro) and a friend are walking down Washington and Malcolm X boulevards when the police mistake them for suspects in a robbery at the same mini-mart where CJ had her incident with her ex. Calvin is brutally shot dead by a white cop. CJ and her entire family are devastated, and spontaneous protests against police brutality erupt all over the city in the name of the martyred Calvin.
As I said, this is not a Disney Channel flick…
After Calvin’s funeral, CJ is grimly motivated to improve the design of the time machines; increasing their operating capacity and using them to take more ambitious trips of a week or more into the past… just long enough to prevent the shooting death of her brother. Sebastian tries to talk her out of it, but realizes that he can’t. He offers to help, because he and CJ are best friends, and that’s what friends do.
The two quickly realize that the greater capacity they need rests in the ingenious quantum circuitboard developed by CJ’s would-be paramour Eduardo. He offers to help the two in exchange for the promise of a date with CJ. She relents, and they proceed to use Eduardo’s circuitboard, which is held in a “Pulp Fiction”-style briefcase (complete with its own theme music). As they prepare to jump, CJ reminds the unlucky Eduardo that if she and Sebastian succeed, her promise of a date will have never happened (ouch!).
CJ and Sebastian open another wormhole, jumping back before Calvin’s murder. Unable to prevent it a second time, they re-tool their machines and try again, failing to take into account the dangers of encountering their past selves. Things rapidly escalate, which results in a reshuffling of the outcome, with one life tragically substituted for another.
Unable to accept this increasingly high butcher’s bill that accompanies time travel, CJ determines to keep trying until things are set right… and that is where the story simply stops.
The Neverending Ending.
The ambiguous ending of CJ jumping towards an uncertain fate might frustrate those who want the whole thing wrapped up in a nice, tidy bow. Personally I prefer the ambiguous ending, because CJ’s story has no end. Once you play god, how and where do you stop? She could be time-traveling right now, or 15 years from now, still trying to rewrite an ever-jumbling pile of wrongs. Not to mention that the kinds of injustices that CJ is attempting to rewrite cannot be fixed so easily.
Another aspect of the movie I enjoyed was the deep-but-platonic friendship between CJ and Sebastian. It’s refreshing, as are their perspectives as genius teens of color in modern-day Flatbush. More films like this, please!
Time Travel Tribute.
There are, of course, nods to “Back To The Future”… the most obvious being Michael J. Fox’s surprise cameo as Mr. Lockhart. There is also CJ’s brother’s name “Calvin,” after “Calvin Klein,” the famed fashion designer whose name became Marty McFly’s alias in 1955. In both films, family is critical to the story, as is the danger of losing one’s temper. CJ’s short fuse reminds me of Marty McFly’s “Nobody calls me chicken” character tic from “Back To The Future 2.” The potential tragedy of time travel (the murders of George McFly & Calvin) is something the two films share as well.
Making the film’s time travel devices limited in their temporal range is a nice way to cheat the usual expenses of a time-travel movie. “See You Yesterday” doesn’t need to redress its New York locations in expensive period decor, digital matte paintings or even seasonal changes. As Sebastian jokes after their first jump back in time, “Wow…this street looks just like it did yesterday.”
“See You Yesterday” is to “Back to the Future” what Spike Lee’s “Tales From The Hood” (1995) was to the 1970s Amicus anthology horror films; an homage told with a new social awareness it might not otherwise have if it were a straight remake.
Summing It Up.
“See You Yesterday” is the reason Netflix original movies exist. If it were released to multiplexes, it would be painfully hard to market. Some moviegoers might assume it was some kind of urban reimagining of “Back To The Future,” which would be a mistake. Producer Spike Lee’s name might lead others to think it’s a meditation on cultural identity, and that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either.
“See You Yesterday” doesn’t really conform to one specific tone or genre, and that spirit of nonconformity is part of the film’s unique charm.