by Brian Tomasik
First written: 29 Jul. 2014; last update: 30 Jul. 2014

Is it possible for an algorithm to predict when you'll meet your romantic soulmate? And if it could, would you want to know? What if your emotions felt otherwise?

Timer filmThese are themes explored in the 2009 romance film Timer. The movie follows Oona, an almost-30 orthodontist who signs up many potential boyfriends with the timer device only to discover that they don't trigger her own timer and hence are not meant to be. Discouraged, Oona decides to take things easy for a while and spends time with Mikey, a 22-year-old grocery-store worker and band member. The two begin to fall in love, though they realize that Mikey's timer is set to go off with someone else in a few months. Mikey later reveals that he was using a fake timer, and in fact, he rejects the idea of using the timer altogether. The plot includes a few more twists that I won't spoil.

Timer appears on the surface like a fairly standard love story, though it's also a science-fiction film, arguably on the order of The Twilight Zone or "Harrison Bergeron". Or maybe "science fantasy" is a better description, because the ability of the timers to predict with 98% accuracy when soulmates will first meet and make eye contact seems beyond the reach of any reasonable technology. Not only does this require determining an excellent romantic match, but it also requires knowing when those two people will cross paths, which is presumably nigh impossible in a world of butterfly effects. Then again, maybe this is part of the film's point.

In fact, it's never made clear whether the timers work. Most of society believes they do, including Mikey, despite his rejection of the idea of measuring love with a "piece of plastic". Oona questions whether timers may appear to succeed just because of self-fulfilling belief. Oona's stepsister Steph replies: "The chicken, the egg. It's all a big clusterfuck."

It's not clear to me whether 98% success rates could be achieved based purely on expectations, but I'm not confident that's impossible,a especially in a society that places extreme trust in claims of scientifically proven effectiveness. For comparison, we could imagine a highly devout society that takes for granted the words of a religious matchmaker about who should marry whom.

Oona's mother Marion believes in the timer because it predicted her meeting her new husband, Paul, following her divorce from Oona's father, Rick. Oona asks Marion why, if Marion's first marriage was a mistake, Oona's birth wasn't a mistake. Marion tries to dismiss the apparent contradiction.

Oona visits Rick to find out why he never got a timer. She learns that he actually did get one and used it to prove to Marion that their marriage was not going to work. This leaves one to wonder whether the timer is a modern form of divination that can help one prove what one wants to believe -- at least when it comes to getting out of a relationship if not getting into one.

That said, Rick is now paired with a woman, Delphine, even though her timer didn't go off with him. "Your dad isn't my one," Delphine tells Oona, "but I love him. Fuck it, you know?" In fact, Rick's timer hasn't started counting, meaning that his soulmate is somewhere else and hasn't gotten a timer yet. Rick says: "A couple more lessons to learn, I guess."

Marion insists that the timer is a vast improvement over the old days, when people had to undergo a messy and emotionally taxing process to find a romantic partner. On the other hand, after Marion's 9th-grade son (Jesse) is paired by the timer with the daughter (Soledad) of Marion's Latin American house maid (Luz), Luz tells Marion that it would have been better if Jesse and Soledad had run off and gotten married against the parents' wills, so that the children could have forced the families to recognize their love.

The film mentions masks worn by Mwali hunters in Bangladesh on the backs of their heads to ward off Bengal-tiger attacks. This reference occurs both near the beginning and at the end of the film, suggesting that its inclusion is more than random. The masks may be a metaphor for the timers themselves, which are (fake?) masks that ward off attempts at love that may fail and cause heartbreak. Steph's advice when Oona first got involved with Mikey was not to see him after the first night because if Oona got attached, Oona's heart would just be broken later when Mikey's timer went off with someone else. Steph applied this advice herself, occupying her time with one-night stands during her long wait for her timer to go off at age 43.

Timer can be seen as a reaction against the idea that love can be turned into a science, arguing instead that it inherently involves elements of risk and unpredictability. I don't agree with this viewpoint. In some animals, mate choice is determined by somewhat more basic cues,b and even in humans, successful relationships can be predicted with moderate success using simple indicators. Humans are ultimately machines that operate in a deterministic world. But the film is right to point out the complexity of love and the skepticism with which one should approach slick marketing about scientific matchmaking.

The more general theme of whether life is better with certainty or with taking some risks is worth pondering. "Nah, we need a little mystery in life", says Mikey. This may be true for human brains, though it needn't be the case for arbitrary minds. If I were to create my own creatures (which I wouldn't do), I would code them to prefer the happiness of certainty, though I can imagine other people finding such an arrangement less than optimally valuable.

Timer can also be interpreted as arguing against the idea of soulmates altogether. Following is one exchange from the film:

Oona: Do you think it's weird that we've never been in love?

Steph: No. It only happens once, so we're due.

Oona: Yeah, but do you think that they thought like that -- that it only happens once -- before the timer? I'm just saying like the expression "first love" does imply there are seconds and thirds.

Ultimately, Timer leaves open many interpretations -- both about the way its unresolved story ends and about what lessons its writer, Jac Schaeffer, was trying to convey.

  1. The end of one OkCupid blog post discusses how much made-up match scores affect how well people hit it off with each other. Answer: OkCupid's rating matters a lot, but actual personality match matters too.  (back)
  2. Oxytocin and vasopressin play important roles in attachment (romantic and otherwise) in mammals. Hypothetically, one could imagine the timers in the film working by hidden subcutaneous injections of bonding hormones when two matched timers are in close range with one another. The effectiveness would be enhanced if the timers could detect when the couple was looking at each other and when other people weren't around. That said, the film makes no allusion to this possibility, even though it would help make sense of the timers' unbelievable success rates.  (back)