One year before The Matrix, 1998 gave us a different take on simulated reality with The Truman Show.
Written by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1M0NE, The Terminal) and directed by Peter Weir (The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society), The Truman Show stars Jim Carrey as the rather on-the-nose named character, Truman Burbank, who, unbeknownst to him, lives an idealistic life in an artificially created town situated in a metal dome in Hollywood, where everyone but Truman is an actor, playing a part in a 24-hr TV show. The show is orchestrated by one “Christoff”, played by Ed Harris, who sees over not just the whole production, but in a protective way, over his creation: Truman.
The film starts with and chronicles Truman’s realization that life isn’t what he grew up thinking it was, with the backstage area of the theatre he lives within become more obvious, and Christoff’s attempts to contain this crisis to keep the show going.
“The Truman Show” Has You
Since the film’s release, there have been many a reevaluation, with the most popular one being that of comparing the concept of Truman Show with the rise of reality television that came to be not too long after.
It’s not an entirely fitting comparison, however. To relegate The Truman Show to just a simple and rather shallow “reality show” analogy is revisionist, and wholly inaccurate. Sure, the film contains elements that can be compared, in a somewhat foretelling fashion, to certain concepts in modern TV. But, its purpose and execution, for both the film’s writer and the characters within, differ completely from the grand schemes that are present in real-life reality television. If you’re looking for something that genuinely predicted the culture of reality TV, you’re better off with 1981’s Rocky Horror pseudo-sequel, Shock Treatment.
The Truman Show predated reality TV and isn’t burdened with comparisons to what came after it. It’s a sci-fi concept that could’ve only existed when it did, much like what we today call “retro sci-fi” from the 1950s and such. Allegedly, the film’s premise is built upon a 1980s Twilight Zone episode, which makes sense.
That’s why the film is a bit of a modern classic, only having come out 20 years ago while feeling much older.
Looking at the plot itself, Christoff is more interested in creating what he considers a perfect, idealistic America, within the town of Seahaven Island, than he is in the show itself. The production of the show is seemingly only there as a byproduct, a means for him to fund his project. Christoff claims that the outside world is chaotic and that Seahaven Island is the best-controlled environment possible. He thinks of Truman as a chosen one, someone who has been granted the best life possible in his ignorance.
“The Truman Show” (the show of the same name within the film) is presented to its audience as an old-styled soap opera/sitcom, complete with corny production value. The gimmick of Truman being an unsuspecting participant in this show is just an attraction, like a freak show. In the real world, there seems to be great opposition to this human rights disaster, but we’re never shown just how much of the world cares about it. In fact, we’re not even sure when in time the film takes place in.
Regardless, for Christoff, he is bestowing an amazing gift upon Truman, and one that is not to be scorned. Outside of the more front-facing plot of Truman uncovering the truth about his life, this is the most crucial concept of the film’s story and one that needs to be looked upon more in future evaluations.
We’re All Stars Now
Perhaps more importantly, The Truman Show is a product of its very specific time.
The very late 90s, and all the way up to 2001, were a great time in themes of questioning norms, whether political or that of existence itself.
Outside of films like The Matrix and Truman Show, in music, you had Marilyn Manson with a clean yet ugly, androgynously alien laser scope on American sub-cultures and drug use, breaking through barriers with albums like Mechanical Animals. A year before, Radiohead bemoaned similar ideas but reflecting more in the struggles of everyday lives under a microscope, of expectations, with OK Computer.
In video games, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid, and especially Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, toyed with expectations, the relationship between creators and audiences, reality and simulation (I don’t mean VR), and a whole lot more.
“Bubbles” were being burst, and the media at the time revolved around just that. All of the aforementioned media showed a strong interest in the exploration of the individual, or rather, the realization of the individual’s value over that of an upkept collective. Hell, even Dreamwork’s Antz, an CG-animated film about, well ants, dealt with that same topic.
Truman being the center of attention in a conspiracy against him wasn’t a unique concept at the time; in fact, it fit in. To be a star of your own show, living in a celebrity world: it all comes crashing together into an amalgamation of the end of a very televised decade. In The Truman Show, there are two different forms of bubbles being burst. First, the one created for Truman, as he begins to open his eyes to see the world for what it is. And second, Christoff’s bubble i.e. his belief that Truman wouldn’t want to leave such a “perfect” fantasy.
Directed by Christoff
The strengths of Truman Show rest in its concept, and its place in history is highlighted as it is part of a collective. Without its place in time, Truman Show isn’t all that remarkable of a film.
It survives today mostly due to its provenance, and deservedly so. Much like the rest of works written by Andrew Niccol, there’s an overbearing amount of sappiness to the film that isn’t charming when taken out of the few places where it works as well as the kicking of dead horses long after the audience should be expected to get the point.
The events that take place within Truman’s live life on the show are orchestrated by Christoff to be idealistic, romanticized and devoid of real-life human emotion. So, the sappiness works, creating a sort of hybrid of every old-fashioned suburban sitcom or slice-of-life show.
This mode of storytelling doesn’t end at the show, though, seeping into the reveal of the outside world both watching the show and controlling it. Periodically throughout the movie, we cut to the audience, sitting at home or work or what have you, mindlessly enjoying the show. The execution of these scenes is rather cringe-worthy, and only seems to exist as a way to inject some unneeded comic relief and to further drive what is going in the film to an audience who, again, otherwise should be trusted to already know by now.
In a similar way, perhaps the worst part of the film comes in the form of a long expository sequence where Christoff explains to a reporter (played by Harry Shearer) just how the “Truman Show” production is put together. It’s an unneeded detour that completely breaks the otherwise subtle themes the film could have conveyed without treating its audience like children.
In an unintentionally fitting way, the experience of watching the film is like watching a production created for us by Christoff. It’s not something meta to look into.
A Modern Classic
Despite these flaws that serve to deter the enjoyability of the film, it would be foolish to deny the film’s stature as a modern classic. It inhabits the same consciousness as other media of its time and was truly a film unlike any other of its time. Jim Carrey being the big star that he was at the time most assuredly was the biggest draw for the mainstream audience at the time, but the package that contained it all was something wholly different than Ace Venutra or The Mask.
The Truman Show, above all, is a great example of a rather concise, to-the-point, self-contained short story told through the medium of film. It’s an artifact in cinema at this point in time, and a great starting point for those interested in more layered filmmaking.