Many science fiction adventures look toward the future. They imagine a world different from our own and unpack how life could change for the better — or worse, usually worse. However, some of the best sci-fi stories are grounded in a reality that looks much more familiar.
This underrated 2019 Netflix original movie does just that. It’s an ambitious debut with a time-travel twist that fuses Back to the Future and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Set in modern-day Brooklyn and centered on two teenagers who invent a time machine, See You Yesterday successfully treads the line between sci-fi adventure and socially conscious drama.
The result is an endlessly surprising time travel movie you need to see to believe.
See You Yesterday follows C.J. Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith), a teenage scientist and prodigy who lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Along with her best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), C.J. uses her smarts and expertise to create a time travel device small enough to fit in a backpack.
At first, their experiments are small. They jump back in time by just one day. After all, they don’t want to make a time jump so big — or change anything in the past — that could cause a disruption in the future.
But something happens that transforms this fun experiment into a matter of life and death.
C.J.’s brother, Calvin (played by Astro), is killed by a police officer who mistakes his phone for a weapon. Grieving the sudden, violent loss of her brother, C.J. compromises the rules of time travel to save her brother’s life. She and Sebastian travel back to the day before — when C.J. was murdered — to prevent him from encountering the police. But with each attempt to change the past, they realize just how much it complicates the future.
See You Yesterday’s brisk 80-minute running time gives this time-travel adventure a lot of energy. From start to finish, it sustains a pace that pulls you in and keeps you invested, thanks largely to a magnetic performance from Duncan-Smith.
Part of the fun is that the movie also wears its inspirations on its sleeve, with Back to the Future being one of them. Even Marty McFly himself Michael J. Fox makes a cameo appearance as Mr. Lockhart, C.J.’s inspirational high school science teacher.
Besides the movie’s incredibly high-stakes narrative, one of its most captivating themes is its exploration of how time and systemic oppression are related and yet still mutually exclusive. No matter how much C.J. tries, the powers that be are so deeply embedded in society that not even time travel can change them.
Adapted from his 2017 short film of the same name, director Stefon Bristol wanted to create a sci-fi adventure in his voice, one about and starring Black people.
“I grew up in the hood. I grew up with other brilliant young black people who are geeks, who are into anime, who are into stem research, who are not into rapping or playing sports,” Bristol told Indiewire.
Inspired by the community he grew up in and the Black Lives Matter movement, Bristol teamed up with screenwriter Fredrica Bailey to merge these themes in a feature-length script.
When Bristol told his former NYU professor, director Spike Lee, about his idea for See You Yesterday, Lee suggested that he film the story as a short first and then use it to pitch the feature film version. Bristol followed his advice and showed the short film to Lee, who was so impressed he offered to produce the full feature film we see today on Netflix.
And you can clearly see that while Bristol embraces sci-fi conventions to set up See You Yesterday’s story, the style and tone of the film echoes the works of Spike Lee. The result is a unique and emotional ride, one that challenges both the rules of time travel and the real-life social injustices people face every day.
See You Yesterday is now streaming on Netflix.