Dystopic Love Story: The Triumph of the Machines in the Film *Timer*

Like a sizable chunk of the population, in our house, we watch a lot of Netflix. My girlfriend and I tend to take turns choosing films to watch: my choices typically need to have some element of weirdness, whether it’s science fiction, horror, mystery, or something with a good amount of darkness and grandiosity to it. My girlfriend tends to choose period or character driven pieces that are often lighter in tone, but nevertheless heavy on drama. It was her turn to choose the film on our last movie night and, after scrolling through a few pages online to see what was getting good reviews on Netflix, settled on Jac Shafer’s 2009 rom/com, *TiMER*(The lower-case “i” being a reference to the ubiquity of electronic devices). Her description of a sci-fi/fantasy narrative sounded interesting, so that’s what we watched.


As the film opens, Oona (played by Emma Caulfield), drags her boyfriend of a month into what appears to be a Verizon Wireless store and insists that he undergo some kind of treatment. Everyone is uncomfortable, particularly the man, whom we find out is finishing some kind of PhD. But Oona is more than uncomfortable, she’s nearly sweating with anxiety while the store associate, who is going over the cost for what we are learning is a “TiMER” implant, discusses the price of the installation and the revolving monthly fee to keep the device activated.


The company who invented the Timer, we learn through an explanatory intro sequence, has managed to create a device that scans and quantifies the soul of a person with such accuracy that it can find the One True Soul Mate for the person willing to pay the start-up fee and the revolving monthly charge. As a novum (in SF parlance, the technological device around which the plot revolves to make it “science fictional”), the Timer initially seems to be a truly problematic “solution” to the messiness of free will, love, and the stressful freedom to finding romantic love naturally. It operates, in the end, as the most appalling quantification of spirituality since *The Phantom Menace* reconfigured faith and the metaphysical relationship to the force as a simple measurement of “midi-chlorians.” But, unlike *Star Wars,* which never addressed or even suggested the notion that the force potential of a human being cannot be measured by a machine, *TiMER,* continuously flirts with the idea that human relationships, particularly love, cannot be reduced in a way that can be measured, commodified, and sold to consumers in retrofitted cell phone outlets. (Note that the physical gesture of looking at the timer is identical to a person looking at an E-Harmony app on a smart phone.) Instead, the film illustrates two couples bravely making connections *in spite* of the Timer protocol.


The characters are charming, the relationships appear to unfurl the old-fashioned way, and there is some discussion about what to do while “waiting” for the Timer to go off. Oona and her sister, Steph, live together and maintain a healthy sisterhood, but also share a common bond over the odd features of their Timers. Oona’s hasn’t started to countdown yet, which means that her soul mate hasn’t bought his (or her) Timer, which is why she takes any naked-wristed potential mate to the TiMER store shortly after meeting him (to “get it out of the way”). Steph’s soul mate is out there, and has a Timer on his wrist, but, unfortunately, she won’t meet him until she is 43 years old (both women had the Timers installed on or near their 14th birthdays like *everyone* in this fictional world). Their personal lives, then, fall into two categories. Steph sleeps around and maintains an ever-present emotional distance from any potential mate since she has total faith in the Timer and *knows* she won’t meet “Mr. Right” until later, and Oona, closing in on her 30th birthday, doesn’t want to bother with any relationship that won’t lead to the guarantee of lifelong bliss the Timer promises.


Sounds quirky and funny enough, and the characterizations are drawn compellingly. The presence of the machinery is starkly drawn when both women meet men who don’t have Timers, and toward whom both seem to be *organically* attracted. Mikey, a supermarket clerk who is conspicuously younger than Oona, tells Oona a joke which doesn’t go over well at first, but nevertheless gets her attention. Shockingly, he doesn’t have a Timer, so she leaves the supermarket, only to meet up with him again in a moment of rom/com serendipity, at the bar where Steph works and where his band is playing. What follows is a logically developed romance that grows *in spite* of the presence of the Timers. Similarly, Steph meets a man who doesn’t have a Timer either, and in the course of their initial interactions, we learn that he was once in love, but his wife died. He *knew* his former wife had been *the one* for him, without the aid of the Timer, and gives us hope that Steph will also grow a true connection with someone **in spite** of the ever-present Timers.


The trajectory of the rest of the film is an illustration of individuals operating toward romantic and true relationships that grow inside the context of a society that commodifies and sells the soul back to them. In every way, we get the sense that Steph’s object of affection, Dan, has the depth of character to offer a true connection to Steph, and she takes the revolutionary step to get the Timer removed. Oona, who was attempting to get the Timer removed with Steph, is suddenly faced with the Timer engaging at the last second, meaning that her soul mate has just had his implanted. At the critical moment she decides to keep it on in spite of her growing relationship to Mikey, which has developed along believably humanistic lines, in direct opposition to the over-arching presence of the Timer commodity.


The final act, then, sets us up for an anecdotal case study in dystopian resistance, predicated on the subversive power of love itself. As Steph and Oona arrive to their birthday party (they share a birthday), with Oona arriving late, we witness Mikey interacting with the family, doing his best to fit in, and Dan, who shows up with flowers for Steph. At the critical moment where Oona and Dan meet eyes, their Timers go off, and we realize that the machinery has determined that they are *supposed* to be together. This all seems to be playing out as a charming little rom/com sci-fi mish-mash, wherein the characters all find love with the aid of serendipity in spite of the weird pre-arrangement of the Timer protocol, and we expect Oona to embrace Mikey and Steph to embrace Dan, and the sisters to remain steadfastly sisterly, all in defiance of a society driving metaphor for a “smart phone app that knows best.”


But it doesn’t. The final act ends with Oona ending her relationship to Mikey for no other reason than “the Timer told me so;” Steph resigning herself to the omnipotence of the Timer and forgiving fate for giving her sister the guy she actually was falling for; Mikey left in shambles in a kitchen scene that resembles, in almost every way, Oona’s dream of her soul mate; and Dan and Oona, meeting under entirely contrived circumstances, at the track Oona runs on every morning. The film is too straight forward for this final scene to have reconfigured the entirety of the plot as a satire, and actually changes the story to be one of submission to the machinery of a dystopian world view and a wholesale reinforcement of bourgeois class stratification. In TiMER, love doesn’t conquer all: Verizon, Apple, and E-Harmony do. There is never a real moment where Oona and Mikey split in any logical way, but merely resign themselves to the truth of the machine. Dan, whose depth of character and faith in himself at one time seemed to offer Steph a chance at truly living her life in spite of the predetermination of her Timer, gets a Timer himself (knowing full-well that it will not match Steph’s) and ruins what they began, explaining his acquisition of the timer as a convoluted gesture of love toward Steph.


It’s such an obnoxious and unethical turn of events in the final moments of the film, that I was left wondering if the screenwriter/director was approached by E-Harmony itself to rewrite the ending, and I was surprised that there wasn’t a commercial embedded in the credits as an Easter egg a la the Marvel franchise. The film embraces every negative aspect of the novum around which it was built, and the resulting message is that true love and free will do not exist, and it’s best to remain faithful to the predetermination of the matchmaking industry. Ethically, I found the film, given the final moments therein, to be a horrifically weird betrayal of both genres it mashed together. It undermines all the serendipity and frailty of human relationships, the messiness of love and freedom, and streamlines it in the face of a plot device against which any sci-fi fan automatically (and rightfully) rails. This is Winston Smith saying “I love Big Brother,” to the quirky sounds of an uplifting credit score, or Guy Montag deciding, finally, that books *are* too messy and difficult, and life should be simplified, so he decides to start burning books again to the hip sounds of the latest pop song.


It surprised me that a light-hearted rom/com with sf elements forced my girlfriend and I to our deck at 12:30 in the morning, consoling ourselves over the betrayal of the human soul in the final moments of *TiMER.* Now that it’s my turn to choose our next film, I’m in the strange position of asking her to decide on a film that ends in a more appropriately heroic affirmation of love and humanity. I find myself, for the first time, needing to cleanse my palate of the heartbreaking celebration of arranged marriage, caste reinforcement, and submittal to the commodification of the human heart. I was looking forward to a cutting documentary this week, but now I find myself saying bring on *Serendipity.* Hell with it. Bring on *When Harry Met Sally.*


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