TiMER and the trope of destructive prescience

Streaming on Netflix is a scifi romance with very deep philosophical roots. TiMER is about what would happen if a piece of technology could tell you when you would meet your soulmate.

The premise of TiMER is simple. It's set in our own world, but with a twist. In the mid-to-late nineties, someone came up with an invention that, when implanted in a person's wrist, could count down the days until they met their soul mate. The invention only worked if the soulmate also had a timer - if they didn't, the timer remained blank until they got one - but it was so quickly adopted by such a large part of the population that the point became mostly moot.

I had to watch until the end to know if I liked TiMER. Most of the way through, I was too nervous to enjoy it. It's not that the movie is scary: The genre is. TiMER is a romantic comedy at heart, and romantic comedy is a slippery genre that often sells itself short. It sets up a tricky situation, something that will keep the lovers apart, something that's clever and deep, but too frequently it throws its main point away with an airy, 'love conquers all!'


By the end of TiMER, I knew that I admired it. Its premise would have been easy to throw out the window, but it set up its universe and stuck by it. The movie honored its own rules, and so it ended up being honorable.

Here are the rules of the movie:

1. The timer is never wrong. No malfunctions. No oopses. The person you're looking at when the timer gives off its little alarm is The One.

2. The timer does not change. You can't have a deep personal epiphany and have your timer cut a year off your sentence. You can't spontaneously hop a boat to Fiji and have the timer re-set.

For the most part, knowing things ahead of time is a blessing. At least you can prepare. I know that if I were in that world I'd get a timer. And the world at large seems pretty happy with the timers. The divorce rate has plummeted. Painfully impossible longing has been minimized. The older generations have confirmation of their wise marriages (if you've met before, timers just count down to your next meeting), or solid reasons to give up on marriages they suspect aren't working. The younger generations can plan out their lives with a little more information.


The movie centers on a timered family that isn't as lucky as the rest. Timer implantation is legal at age fourteen. The parents believe in timers because theirs got them together after difficult previous marriages.

The children are not as enthusiastic. One daughter in her late twenties has been watching her timer count down for fourteen years and knows that she'll be watching it count down for another fourteen years. The son has just been implanted with a timer, and finds out he'll meet the girl he's destined to be with in three days. When he does his parents invite her parents over for dinner, because they consider her part of the family already. The third daughter, Oona, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anya, has had a perpetually blank timer for the last fifteen years. She's spent a decade getting un-timered guys to get implanted, only to find out that they're not her soul mate and have the relationship dissolve on the spot.


Of course in reality, there are a hundred ways to circumvent this. There would be a site called matchmytimer.com up so fast that your head would spin. But that's not how it works. The idea of a love timer is not about technology. It's about knowing your fate, and how that can really screw things up. And that goes way, way back, and way, way forward.

Everyone knows how well the characters in Oedipus managed to sidestep their fate. Greek myths, folk tales, Shakespeare and Disney movies all found ways to show how trying to pull away from destiny is like trying to get out of a hole with a shovel. Be as aggressive as you like, you're only going deeper.


Science fiction also has characters succumb to their destiny rather than overcome it, but it takes a different tack. Science fiction characters mostly get what they want out of their destinies, but only when those destinies don't really matter to them anymore. Sure, Luke and Anakin were going to overcome the dark side of the force. Anakin only managed it after doing pretty much all the damage he could do. Luke only managed it after connecting with his father became more important to him than victory. Yes, Paul Atreides became the Kwizatz Haderach, but how much good did that do him? And in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin, Genly Ai did get the planet Gethen to join the Ekumen federation, as prophesized by a spiritual religious sect, but only after he lost all emotional ties to that federation. In science fiction, you get what's coming to you only after you've been through so much that you stop wanting it.

TiMER is contemporary science fiction. Despite its unbelievable premise, it does a fair bit of world-building. The TiMER store looks disturbingly like a cross between a T-Mobile and Apple store. There are parties set around timers zeroing out. There are groups of people who live their lives like a perpetual mardi gras as their time to be free and single runs out, and people who believe that if you know your One is out there, having sex with someone else is like pre-cheating. It splits the difference between plot contrivance and reality.


And it splits the difference between ancient tragedy and post-modern prophecy. It maintains the strict rules of Greek tragedy: you can't dodge destiny. At the same time, it mixes in a little philosophy in with its strictness. You can love and be loved by someone who isn't your soul mate. You can build a happy life with someone who you know you're not going to be with in one year's time or in ten year's time. You can settle for someone who's not the perfect fit because you love them more than the person coming up who will be the perfect fit. Timer even does the impossible, suggesting that you, your friends, and your soul mate would all be much happier - short or long term - if you passed them by in a crowded room instead of zeroing out with them.

TiMER has shortcomings, but in the end it's a very smart movie. Ignorance can be bliss. So can knowledge. Neither one has to crush you.


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