It’s got it all! This film literally has a character break the 4th wall (with a boat)! The Truman Show has not only been nominated for countless awards in its time but it has won countless more. We take a look at what makes this Jim Carrey outing so enduring after all these years and why it is so difficult to corner into any one genre of film.
This film can be defined as Science Fiction, Comedy, Satire, Concept or Drama, but more accurately the film is a blend of all of these genre elements. Everyone and their dog agrees the film is a giant metaphor but no-one can seem to agree on what that metaphor is. Lets get the more obvious symbolism and observations out of the way first : There’s the Christof (of Christ) / Truman (true man) dynamic between what is essentially creator and creation. The themes of Moses and the book of Exodus. But the most prevalent themes come from Plato’s ‘Allegory of the cave’, an interplay where :
“Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day, and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition—we cannot free ourselves from phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand—the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm”, a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.” – ‘Allegory of the cave’, Wikipedia
This idea was also promoted heavily in the Matrix. After all this is a story about control.
“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented”
Moving on – Flat Earthers point to the symbolism of a presented idea, a giant dome which is not as it seems…. I’m not going to get too bogged down in that one given that the Flat Earth movement was started on 4Chan….
But speaking of paranoia – while researching the film I came across a few articles commenting on how the film echoes our current online privacy and data concerns (outlined in a previous post). However I feel that line of thinking is ill conceived : We elect to share our information, doing so without comprehension whereas Truman literally had no choice. He was born into his world was denied privacy from the start. Presumably those articles were attempting to draw comparison to Jim Carrey dumping his Facebook stock and calling out data mining? Who knows.
Soundtrack-wise the themes are emotive and engaging. Burkhard Dallwitz and Philip Glass capture the mood with each scene and build from introspective piano melodies to crashing epic tension with ease. Check out ‘It’s a life‘ , ‘Dreaming of Fiji‘ , ‘Reunion‘ and ‘Truman sleeps‘ specifically. The strings are vibrant and never overstep the mark, driving the scene in some areas and guiding it gently in others.
Jim Carrey filmed this at the height of his career but up until then was only really known for his comedic roles. Despite filming taking place earlier and delays with the studio over the films release, Carrey already had a number of successful box office films (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) The Mask (1994) Dumb and Dumber (1994) Batman Forever (1995) Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) The Cable Guy (1996) Liar Liar (1997)) under his belt. Some more successful than others obviously but this marks his first real acting job as far as I’m concerned. He has range here that we had previously never seen before. It demonstrates his first performance outside of the goofball character.
It’s worth noting that a similar project came out after The Truman Show – EDTV was another concept film which saw Matthew McConaughey (also starring Ellen, Woody from Cheers and Chandlers fruit-dehydrating roomate) elect to become a reality television star (with hilarious consequences ugh). A bit of a flop, EDTV’s saving grace was it’s ability to portray the “everyman”. They showed the effects of having the cameras intrude on the life of an aware Joe Bloggs character. The protagonist being a bit of a slob (and not too bright) made it easy for the writers to put him into that situation and act boisterous in an effort to escape. With Truman there was a child-like naivety that made him the hero of the film. His schtick was an innocence that made the audience root for him.
The deleted scenes allude to deeper plot threads and character traits. There is a scene where it could be theorised that the network were drugging Truman with “vitamins”. A scene outlining a studio plot for Truman to have an affair, a son and his inevitable death (prematurely or otherwise). In this scene they discuss Truman’s son and the continuation of the show which is an interesting concept in itself. In another scene we see that when Truman steps onto the boat – he knows completely that everyone in Seahaven is in on the conspiracy. He appears disguised as a member of his own search party and makes his way to the docks. Once he knows the truth there is no turning back for his character. Obviously this scenes omission from the theatrical cut makes for a more compelling story if Truman still has doubts as to the level and intricacies of the conspiracy by this stage.
I truly feel like Andrew Niccol doesn’t get enough credit for the world-building at play. Every character not only has a backstory within Truman’s world, but so does the actors that play them (within the confines of the world outside Seahaven). I admire this level of detail (seen more recently in the gaming world with the likes of Red Dead Redemption 2 – where the NPC’s have lives and jobs and a scheduled day independent of the protagonists actions). We can also see the sophistication of the camera technology grow as Truman gets older in the more “clip driven” portions of the film.
The filming is in itself fascinating. At the beginning of the film shots of Truman appear largely in fish eye, iris and point-of-view to demonstrate the perspective of the hidden cameras. As Truman discovers his world these devices are used less, subtly taking the audience out of this world alongside Truman (to a certain extent). The shift is subtle but wholly impactful. Even camera angles throughout the film make it look like filming is being conducted from hidden locations within the scenery.
As solid as the world-building of the film is, there are still some concerns about the ending : what happened when Truman went through the door? Did it lead into a backstage area or some sort of maintenance corridor? Echoing back to the religious symbolism, Christof addresses Truman from the heavens with a booming voice and Truman turns his back on the creator. As symbolic as his exit is in the film, Truman is still within Christof’s control (at least until he makes it outside of the secure studio/dome facility). And then there’s the legal ramifications of his departure. The studio presumably have a legal obligation to his care and well-being. We assume that Sylvia comes to meet Truman leaving the studio but we have no idea how difficult it would be for him to leave the compound property.
Christof and the network can’t have been too happy about Truman’s departure – Would they seek to smear him using footage of grabbing his wife Meryl with the blade? What are the copyright and consent limitations? Then there’s the serious mental toll of living a lie : breakdowns and trust issues, lack of anonymity. We only see glimpses of the world outside of Seahaven and even then it is only of the audience themselves. What kind of world could Truman potentially be walking into?
Calm down, Stu. It’s only a film?
The Truman Show is heartfelt and sincere. It is all of these genre specific elements, religious analogies and psychoanalytical commentaries rolled neatly into the DNA of what is a solid concept film (which ironically would work well as a television series). It asks fascinating questions about identity and privacy. For that reason I feel it will be remembered fondly for years to come. A time capsule if you will. A snapshot of a time before mass surveillance and reality television.
“In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight”