Flatbush wiz-kids CJ and Sebastian have done the impossible. They’ve built real, functioning time machines. The catch is that they can only go back for 10-minute stretches before needing to return to the present. So what do they do with their first, incredibly valuable 10 minutes? Humiliate CJ’s asshole ex-boyfriend. They don’t think anything of it at first until they realize that changing the past caused the trajectory of CJ’s brother’s day to shift. And when I say “shift” I mean, he winds up getting killed by police. This devastates CJ, who decides to use her technology to go back and save him. When she does so, however, she discovers that it’s not so easy to correct the past, since every change brings about new, unforeseen consequences.
See You Yesterday is a film with a lot of things going for it. It’s an original genre piece. It’s got a non-White, female lead. It’s got tons of commentary on race, gender, and police brutality. It’s even got a cameo from Marty McFly himself, Michael J Fox, as if to tell everyone watching that, yeah, this is a time travel classic in the making. And yet, I found myself somewhat disappointed by the feature. Much like Steve McQueen’s Widows, I believe this is a textbook example of “a sum worth less than its parts.”
In theory, See You Yesterday has everything you’d need to make an enjoyable sci-fi adventure: good acting, a quick pace, likable leads, and a short runtime so that you don’t get bored. And yet, the film feels incomplete. By the time the end credits roll, nothing is resolved. Most movies conclude with the main character learning a lesson and/or undergoing an arc because they finished a particular task. They found the thing they were looking for, they pulled off the big heist, they caught the murderer, etc. See You Yesterday appears to be going that route. It has a main character, CJ, with a clear goal; go back in time to save her brother. It even sets up an arc for her early on. In the beginning, she’s kind of arrogant and hotheaded, needlessly starting fights with people, and claiming she can do anything with her technology. In a more traditional narrative, she’d grow to be more humble by the end, and maybe even destroy the time machine, since she’s come to realize that it’s too dangerous. None of that happens in this film, though. When the movie ends, and I don’t care if this is a spoiler, she’s still got her time machine. She still thinks she can change the past, despite repeatedly going back, and messing up the future as a result. The final shot is of her gearing up to try for the umpteenth time, despite all previous experiences suggesting she should just cut her losses. She learns NOTHING. And what makes this so frustrating is the fact that it kind of contradicts what the film seems to be arguing: that you can’t change the past. Not really, anyway. At the beginning of the film, we see CJ and her parents watching a news report about another young Black man getting shot by the police. All her going back in time changes is which young Black man. In a way, the film seems to be suggesting that when the Universe makes up its mind, nothing we do will change it. That’s actually what 12 Monkeys, one of the all-time great time travel movies, argues; that going back does nothing to change future events. It simply changes our perception of those events. See You Yesterday seems to be going down that same road. But, here’s the thing, for that message to work, there has to be some kind of conclusion. This film doesn’t have it since it ends with CJ doing the same thing she was doing at the start. Sigh. I do want to recommend this movie since the young actors are good, the story is original, and it is an easy watch. But the lack of finality and character growth prevent me from doing that. Sorry, guys.