What is it with the late ‘90s obsession with questioning reality? First we get Dark City, we have the Matrix coming up, and here we have The Truman Show (not to mention eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Memento, and Pleasantville) all with the same basic theme - what if the world around you isn’t what it seems? So, what’s up late ‘90s? Things a little bit too easy in the days of the Silicon Valley Boom between the Cold War and Al Qaeda? Did we have to come up with some existential angst to compensate? Or is it something as simple as a generation of Philip K. Dick-reading geeks coming of age?
Peter Weir’s is the brightest and most mainstream of all these films. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in the artificial world of Seaheaven. All of his friends and family are actors, and every moment of his life is broadcast around the world as a 24-hour cable television show. Truman, unaware of all of this, goes through the motions of his humdrum life until he begins to notice odd things – lighting plummeting from the sky, stage directions broadcast over his radio, and his dead father appearing on the street and then being carried away by extras. As Truman begins to suspect the truth, his life begins to unwind. Meanwhile, the showrunner, Christof (Ed Harris) attempts to block Truman at every turn to keep the show running.
It’s an interesting conceit, and it makes for some funny moments and some nice bits of satire (the film’s best joke is a runner about the cast’s awkward efforts at product placement). It also seems quite timely; this is, after all, the moment when reality shows began to takeover television schedules. It looks great and it’s easy to watch. I do wish it asked some tougher questions though. Everything seems a bit…surfacey. I’d like to know more about how Truman’s sheltered existence has shaped him as a person – he seems to have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else would, despite living in a bottle. I’d also like to know more about the actors on the show, who give up their own lives and identities to maintain the illusion (Truman’s wife, played by Laura Linney in my favorite performance of the film, supposedly sleeps with him, despite not really liking him in real life). I’d also like more insight into the audience – we see lots of heartwarming cutaways of them rooting for his escape, but Weir seems to ignore the fact that few of them actively protest his captivity, and they even enable it by obsessively watching his show and boosting the ratings. In other words, the film offers all sorts of great opportunities for insight or satire, but manages to ignore almost all of them.
The one area where Weir really does seem to want to push a metaphor is religion. Christof has something of a God complex, and Truman is the victim of his divine whims who finally rebels. But even this metaphor is a tad heavy-handed, and I can’t entirely say what it means in the end. Still, it’s a nicely made film that only fails in the sense that it could have been so much more. I’d rather watch a film that fails to meet the promise of an ambitious project than a Men in Black-style going through the motions, which is exactly how I’d describe fellow nominee Star Trek: Insurrection. Of the other nominees, I’d say I prefer Dark City, and I like Pleasantville even better (again, lots of similarities there), but I’m not upset that this film won.