The 1998 dramedy, The Truman Show, is one of my top five favorite movies of all time. With tight direction and an ambitious script that would serve as the catalyst for reality television, the movie isn’t afraid to balance comedy and drama to successfully tackle a lot of big ideas. It’s hard to imagine this level of praise coming from a Jim Carrey comedy, but it all works and comes together perfectly.
Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man who lives in the coastal town of Seahaven Island. He has a wife, his fair share of friends, and a good job as an insurance salesman. What Truman doesn’t know is that his entire life is staged for one big television show titled The Truman Show. Everyone in his life is an actor or actress led by the enigmatic creator Christof, played by Ed Harris in a role that got the movie one of its three Oscar nominations.
The movie opens with interviews from some of the people involved. Christof gives a brief monologue about the show saying: “We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tied of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”
Throughout the movie, Truman is shown to have a severe case of wanderlust. He makes numerous attempts to try to leave Seahaven but has no success. On cue, there’s always traffic to hold him up. On cue, the bus overheats. And by mere coincidence, there are no flights to Fiji for at least a month. This feeling of being trapped at home makes Truman a bit stir crazy and causes friction between his friends and family.
The movie was written by Andrew Niccol, who some people may know as the writer/director of the high concept sci-fi film Gattaca. Much like that film, The Truman Show tackles a lot of ideas about philosophy and simulated reality. Right down to the names of the characters (Truman being a play on “true man” while Christof is a play on “Christ off”), everything has a meaning. Everything in Truman’s world was made for him. Everyone is nice to him. Everyone claims to have his best interests at heart. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when he discovers, in the end, that his reality is really a work of fiction.
Watching the film again, I’m reminded of a story told in the movie Ex Machina…
“Mary is a scientist and her specialist subject is color. She knows everything she needs to know about it. The wavelengths. The neurological effects. Every possible property color can have. But she lives in a black and white room. She was born there, and raised there. And she can only observe the outside world on a black and white monitor. All her knowledge of color is second-hand. Then one day, someone opens the door. And Mary walks out. And she sees a blue sky. And at that moment, she learns something that all her studies could never tell her. She learns what it feels like to see color. An experience that can not be taught or conveyed.”
The idea of the story, according to the movie, was to show the difference between a simulation done by a computer versus the processing of the human mind. In the case of The Truman Show, Christof brings the two together to show how a human mind would react in a simulated environment, under the assumption that this environment is real.
Following the movie’s release, cases came up in patients with schizophrenia who believed that their life was all a simulation. One patient, for instance, traveled to New York City following the September 11th attacks, believing that the terrorist attacks were nothing more than a plot twist in his story-line. When he heard that this was considered to be called “The Truman Show delusion”, writer Andrew Niccol joked “You know you’ve made it when you have a disease named after you.”
The Truman Show and Reality Television
In today’s modern age of consumption, almost every television channel has at least one program that could be considered reality television. My personal favorite is the CBS reality competition Survivor, where different people spend 39 days on an island competing against each other for one million dollars. The show first aired on May 31, 2000 and in its first season, averaged over 28 million viewers. By the time the second season aired in 2001, it became the most watched show of the year. That year, CBS also put out The Amazing Race and Big Brother, two other reality competitions which, along with Survivor, are still airing today.
While some people enjoy a good competition, other people prefer to be a fly on the wall of a celebrity family or a group of people. There are good shows, there are bad shows, and then there’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians. While the quality of these types of shows varies, there’s no denying that there’s something for everybody. I’ve heard arguments saying that reality television is usually scripted, and while I don’t really argue whether it is or isn’t scripted, I personally find them to be entertaining either way.
I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed that a movie starring Jim Carrey with a high concept script would generate this much discussion. The Truman Show was a big hit with critics and audiences around the world, and has generated a lot of discussion over what we consider real and what we consider entertainment. And much like the end of the movie, we’re always on the lookout for the next television fix. I don’t use this term lightly, but I will always consider the movie to be ahead of its time.