See You Yesterday
In an era when it seems as if every type of idea, story, narrative structure and trope has been done, re-done, inspired something else and then re-inspired something else entirely, the ability to take a well-worn concept and make something new out of it is very important. This was something on my mind when I saw the premise for Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday, which goes back to the miraculously still-not-dried-up well that is the “time loop”, a concept so popular Wikipedia has an entry just for films that use the concept. There are 25 in the last ten years!
Even on this site I can remember my reviews for Edge Of Tomorrow and ARQ as examples of the idea in science-fiction, and the entire planet just saw the Avengers live through their past experiences in Endgame. But See You Yesterday did offer something genuinely interesting as a hook: tying in the idea of the time loop with the very prescient issue of police brutality and racism in America. Suitably intrigued, I was willing to give See You Yesterday some attention: did I want to hit reset, or was I satisfied with my own timeline?
High school science prodigies C.J (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) seek to finalise their research into time travel, hoping their discovery will lead to fame and bright futures. But when C.J’s brother (Brian “Stro” Bradley) is killed in an unjustified police shooting, C.J risks unraveling the time-space continuum in an effort to change the past and save him.
Having just polished off the largely unwatchable drek that was Rim Of The World, it is very good to be reminded that the words “teenager” and “sci-fi” can go together, and go together very well. No need for aspirations of being a big budget galactic warfare movie either: just a decent futuristic premise, commentary on issues very real today, and some truly excellent performances.
But See You Yesterday truly does get off to a not so great start, what with a really unnecessary Michael J. Fox cameo as the two students’ science teacher. He even quotes Back To The Future. That set alarm bells ringing for me, but thankfully See You Yesterday accelerates on with the story it wants to tell, it just wants to take a moment to pay homage to what came before (and maybe Bill Murray wasn’t available). Back To The Future was then, but Black Lives Matter is now. And the story See You Yesterday wants to tell about that is pretty great: ordinary people with realistic problems, suddenly dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
It starts with decent characters. C.J is one of the most well-rounded female characters that I have seen in this genre: a bright, intelligent young woman, with problems related to her temper and mercenary attitude. She’s worldly as a teenage girl in her time and place must be, but still given to wide-eyed idealism when it comes to her work and what it can accomplish, important for the genre and the audience. In the middle stands her single-minded determination when it comes to the problems put before her, whether it is fixing a laptop for some quick cash, or repeating time loops to try and get the perfect result. Opposite her is Sebastian, just as bright, just as intelligent, but with trust issues, and with his finely tuned sense of caution proving both an advantage and a detriment.
The two are friends, with small hints of something more (and no more than that) but clash and spar as teenagers will. They’re a wonderfully balanced pair, and the relationship between the two carries that vitally important sense of reality, important when the time travel starts. I suppose the appropriate word is “authentic”. Much of that is down to the performances of Duncan-Smith and Crichlow, two relatively newcomers who have laid down a marker for the kind of work they might do in the future. Bradley, better know for his musical career, is also affectingly decent as C.J’s brother, who comes to understand what his sister is attempting to do, even as he realises she may be running down a blind alley.
Setting a time travel story in this time and place takes some balls, as it should be so hard to pull off, but Bristol makes it look pretty effortless. In a way it sucks that Jordan Peele just got done with an episode of the new Twilight Zone, “Replay”, with a very similar premise, as that is bound to draw attention away from Bristol’s project, and I daresay the latter might be a bit more inventive. In this community of minorities, so many people are desperate to escape, and science projects as a means of doing so does not seem any more abnormal than others.
These are people dealing with a lack of opportunities, over-policing and under-policing at the wrong times, and a sense that they are the bottom rung of a society where 50% of people will happily accept them being gunned down for taking a phone out of their pocket. It’s a timeless problem really, one that not even the ability to hop back and forth through the continuum will be able to solve, nodded at effectively as the brother’s shooter actually changes from timeline to timeline: the result is nearly always the same. The best sci-fi is always a product of the time that it is made, and See You Yesterday rates highly on that score.
When C.J’s brother is shot dead by an uncaring cop, for the crime of being a black man when a nearby newsagent has been robbed by a different black man, the possibilities of using her newly discovered power of time travel is just a bit too tempting. From here, See You Yesterday combines its commentary on racist policing with more familiar science fiction themes of meddling with timelines and having to understand that every action has rippling consequences. C.J’s grief is matched only by her ever renewed willingness to try again, even if she risks being caught in a Groundhog Day of her own design. What is science fiction for, if not to present a challenging answer to questions like “What could I have done to prevent this loss?”
See You Yesterday does not spend too much time on its time travel technobabble, which is for the best, because it obviously doesn’t make any sense at all, just like it doesn’t make any sense for Sebastian to just be talking about college scholarships when his co-discovery is perhaps the greatest in humanity’s history. Instead, it mostly gets right down to the actual time travel: this forms the bulk of the film’s second half, and its the appropriate mix of actually tense film-making and heartbreaking trials towards inevitable conclusions. C.J’s obstinacy is trying to create the perfect timeline drives See You Yesterday forward through it’s surprisingly short running time – 80 minutes or so – and you can feel her frustration at her inability to get everything just right. There is always another problem, another unintended effect, another ripple upsetting the pond.
It’s obviously not a production that is overflowing with money, but Bristol still manages to make it look good. The surrounds of this New York suburb are made to look like a lively, inhabited places, with a great deal of Jamaican influences, and there is no resort to miserable set design to try and over-emphasise the negatives unnecessarily. There is constantly a sense of movement behind the camera, and not in the nervous Michael Bay kind of way, but in manner which really gets into the vibrancy of the setting and the characters.
The special effects are throwaway in terms of actual time travel, and not to be focused on too much. Bristol utilises simple montage in key sequences introducing the neighborhood, reacting to the brothers death and in other moments later on that I shouldn’t go too in-depth into, but simply works here. There is also a very well realised sense of clutter to certain scenes in workshops, garages and elsewhere, to give you the feeling that you are dealing with two scientific geniuses at work in limited circumstances. The actual time machine is just tubing and armbands for iPhones, but See You Yesterday has already done the requisite work to suck you in elsewhere.
See You Yesterday’s soundtrack is also quite good at imbuing procedures with the right feeling, with a nice mix of rap, hip-hop and other contemporary music. The wheel isn’t being reinvented here, but some good curation of songs can help make the difference is certain scenes.
See You Yesterday ends on a nebulous point, wherein the characters stay true to their exhibited personalities and yet things finish in a slightly frustrating manner. But I suppose this is true to the point that the film is trying to make: you can have all the time travel that you want, but racist policing isn’t going away no matter how many times you try to reset things. Such thought-provoking ideas are not what you might have expected from this direct-to-streaming affair, but it’s proof that See You Yesterday should be a much heavier hitter than it is likely to be. An excellent cast, well scripted and very well put together: there is a lot to like here, and very little to dislike. A plot line from the future for a story based very much in the now, See You Yesterday comes highly recommended from me.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).