Welcome to “The Next Geek Thing,” where we bring you tomorrow’s pop culture legends today. In this installment we take a look at the urban time travel saga “See You Yesterday.”
This movie is produced by Spike Lee and directed by Stefen Bristol. It stars Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow as two young science geeks respectively named C.J. and Sebastian, who travel into the past to prevent C.J.’s brother Calvin from being shot by the police. The time travel rules at play here are not the convoluted hot messes of alternative timelines we see in “Doctor Who” or “Avengers: Endgame.” Instead we see the single world closed loop of “Back to the Future,” but this time with tragic results.
For anyone keeping score, “See You Yesterday” in its original version is a short film available on Cinemax. It was remade into a feature-length movie shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately released on Netflix. This distinction matters mostly for the technical criteria of what counts as The Next Geek Thing.
The original intent for this series is to stay away from the usual Hollywood overload of sequels, remakes, reboots, adaptations, and throwbacks to old shows. Movies and TV shows that fit the above criteria are usually disqualified from consideration. However, “See You Yesterday” challenges your humble reviewer to think carefully about the roles of remakes and throwbacks.
“See You Yesterday” could qualify for consideration solely on the basis of the original short version. The original version contains little or no material that could constitute a throwback. Sebastian’s garage has a movie poster for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The time travel effects are based on wind, smoke, and costume gadgets that any cosplayer could throw together. If Stefon Bristol and crew had stopped right there, we would have an amazing short film that takes classic sci-fi tropes, combines them with today’s social injustice, and blends them into a product that breaks the heart of anyone who watches it.
As it turns out, the feature-length Netflix version does what we all wish every remake/adaptation could do: It improves on the original product. Armed with a Netflix-scale production budget, Bristol tells a story that builds on special effects, but even more so on characterization and plot. Calvin in particular gets a bigger role in the Netflix version, and he is pivotal in the story (not just because he is the shooting victim).
The “Back to the Future” throwback is subtle in the original, but in-your-face obvious in the Netflix version. Michael J. Fox gets a cameo in the opening scene, where he drops the famous Doc Brown catchphrase. The time travel effects add a lightshow and the upbeat orchestral fanfare that used to accompany a certain DeLorean. It’s not necessary to have seen “Back to the Future” to watch this movie, but it adds to the experience. While throwbacks often mask lazy writing and use someone else’s hard work to entertain, “See You Yesterday” has a dramatic intent behind the throwback. It takes throwback and applies a new twist, one that exemplifies all the character identification and attempted wish fulfillment that drama is really all about.
Even with its heavy theme “See You Yesterday” does not waste valuable screen time preaching on a soapbox. When the cops are so jumpy that simply mentioning a robbery makes them draw their guns, actions speak loudly for themselves. If anyone feels tempted to complain that the cops’ characterization is not realistic, try telling that to the families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Treyvon Martin, Philando Castile, and all too many countless others.
We can look at the movies of the past, where cops get to shoot people just for running away. In real life, that’s worth going to jail for, if only when it’s caught on video. But, sure, by all means, let’s wait until police brutality against people of color becomes the central plot point before we have an ongoing debate about movie realism.
For that matter, drama cannot settle the complex questions of our time. That’s not its job. It can only show the audience the human cost of societal problems and the heroic reaction to them. In this movie C.J. mourns, but primarily she acts. Sebastian tries to be the voice of reason and keep her grounded, even as he runs into the fray right beside her. With each jump into the past, they have limited time and fuel, and even when they try to learn from their mistakes, they inevitably make things worse. Together they form a time-travel team that’s compelling to watch, and they would look great as FunkoPops!
All things being fair, equal, and just, “See You Yesterday” is The Next Geek Thing. The original short film downplays the throwback until it’s barely recognizable, and it thereby stands on its own as a groundbreaking tragedy. The feature-length Netflix version improves on the storytelling. The throwback isn’t just an exercise in living in the past; it’s given a fresh new twist that’s all too relevant to today’s audience.
Of course, things are neither fair, equal, nor just. That’s the movie’s entire point. Especially for one like “See You Yesterday,” it takes more than the lone voice of an aging white guy to make it The Next Geek Thing. The good news is that it got a 94% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s up to you to take it from there. Check it out for yourself. Talk it up among your friends and on social media. Leave us your constructive comments, here, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
And while you’re at it, please drop a nomination for other movies and TV shows. Who knows, maybe your suggestion might find its way into a future column!
See you next time, here at The CineMasoCast, as we continue our epic quest to find The Next Geek Thing!