See You Yesterday Challenges the Meaning of Time Travel
Everyone knows the time-travel rules: Don't go back and meet your previous self; don't crush on your mom; and, as tempting as it is, don't try to kill an evil tyrant. Despite their obviousness, these tropes are still trotted out in most time-travel movies—including, most recently, Avengers: Endgame. See You Yesterday considers that history and says: We can make it better.
The new Netflix sci-fi movie isn't concerned with stopping robot uprisings (Terminator), writing a high school history paper (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure), or reliving the 1980s (Hot Tub Time Machine). Rare for the genre, See You Yesterday imagines time travel as a way to correct a societal wrong, to undo evil of a more on-the-ground variety: Its protagonists, teenage science whizzes Claudette/CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), build a time machine to try to stop CJ's brother from being shot by police.
It says a lot that this kind of storyline is the exception. Implicitly, the choice challenges the concerns of those who for years have been able to make science fiction movies (or at least been able to make sci-fi movies that got in front of large audiences). Whereas filmmakers of the past have been interested in traveling through time to stop the Singularity or relive the heyday of the Walkman, director Stefon Bristol's movie, produced by Spike Lee, seeks to address police brutality against black Americans. It confronts real tragedy—the kind of life events true time travel could reconcile.
But, in Bristol and cowriter Fredrica Bailey's most heartbreaking and insightful turn, it doesn't work. Each time CJ and Sebastian go back, rewinding the clock in their East Flatbush, Brooklyn, neighborhood, their attempt to avert tragedy causes a new one. The damage is cyclical; fixing one incident doesn't solve the problem. The truth about police brutality is that it keeps happening, regardless of whether anyone can go back and alter the past. What needs to change is the world, the way law enforcement operates in America, not any one set of circumstances.
"I think our main goal is just to continue the conversation of police brutality," Bailey recently told The Root during the movie's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. "As a society, we have a tendency sometimes—things kind of ebb and flow and then they disappear, so Stefon and I want to bring this back to the forefront and say, 'Hey, while we're tackling all these other worthy issues, also remember that these are problems in our communities, and it's still something that we need to focus on and find a solution to.'"
See You Yesterday itself provides no solutions. Its conclusion is open-ended—whether CJ and Sebastian succeeded in righting the wrongs of the past is entirely up to viewers. For decades, science fiction has consisted of allegories for what could've been in the past, or what the world could be in the future. Utopias and dystopias. See You Yesterday doesn't have time for any of that; its catastrophes are in the present. It can only point to them and demand change—before it's too late.