The Truman Show
I’d had it in mind to revisit The Truman Show for a while now, and it seems many are rediscovering the picture with fresh eyes amidst a plandemic and the implications that holds for our paradigm. It’s a film I’ve never quite been able to embrace. There’s something about it that’s a little too facile, a little too on-the-nose. And I say that as an unabashed Peter Weir fan. Even with a few new angles to bring to the picture twenty-odd years later, I find that take hasn’t really changed.
I mean, its main characters are called Truman and Cristof! But that’s Andrew Niccol for you; any conscientious Hollywood writer wishing to debate themes of substance and existential merit is ultimately doomed to display a distinct lack of subtlety. That said, many popular readings of The Truman Show have focussed more on its pertinence and prescience with regard to reality TV and surveillance state, the normalisation of monitoring and our adaptability to modes of performance and behaviour in response to the same, rather than the premise of questioning core experiential fundamentals.
Niccol’s original idea was, according to Weir, much more depressing (that wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve seen Gattaca). It was also more explicitly science-fictiony. Weir lightened it up, imbuing it with that Groundhog Day meets ’50s sitcom quality (and it does carry, after all a hopeful message: Truman escapes).
A problem for the allegorical or cautionary picture is that it may not feel it needs to justify its milieu, as long as the big idea comes across. The Truman Show doesn’t really broach the legality or ethics of Truman as a goldfish in a bowl, other than to show the opposition of Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) to his plight. We are told he was “the first child to be legally adopted by a corporation” (and one can extrapolate various real-world referentiality from that, such as the impact of maritime law and trading birth certificates on the stock market). Which doesn’t really address that everyone globally, give or take, seems okay with this deception. You can analogise Truman’s plight in all sorts of valid ways, but whether this is a functional vision is a different matter.
Beyond that, though, the picture focusses in an amiably unhurried fashion on Truman’s awakening to the truth of his situation, that the world he took for granted is a deceit (see also the same year’s Dark City and the following’s The Matrix). For the sake of the movie milieu, everything is about Truman (“Maybe I’m losing my mind… But it feels like the whole world revolves around me somehow”), but one can easily extend that to the hoodwinking of the entire population. Hence, its current pertinence.
Indeed, more than a scenario where only a few are awake/awakening and others blindly act like sheep, one might argue The Truman Show is presenting an inverse: that the real point is all those who KNOW they’re acting parts, per Truman’s co-stars, yet willingly spend their entire lives going through the motions in a plastic reality for the sake of a pay cheque, sacrificing all scruples and integrity. It’s easier just to go along with it all.
The extent of the individual’s self-realisation is closely guarded. As Cristof blithely notes, “We accept the reality of the world which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that”. Which means Truman must be steered away from anything that might cause him to question the status quo. His yen for travel or changes of circumstances are quashed by “friends”, “family” or “circumstance”. When he isn’t in thrall to his fears and phobias.
On the most basic level, then, this is about personal fulfilment, and how a lifetime of acquiescence represents living, if not a lie, then an unlived life. On another, more fundamental to the picture’s construct, it amounts to being fed a carefully fashioned fabrication regarding the hows, whys and wherefores of our existence (“As Truman grew up, we were forced to manufacture ways to keep him on the island”).
I came across, by chance, two different references to the same excerpt from 1984 in the past few days, in which Winston Smith is instructed by interrogator O’Brien regarding the nature of that which he takes to be true (“We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull”). O’Brien casts doubt on Winston’s assumptions in respect of everything from the age of the earth, to dinosaurs, to the stars (“Nothing exists except through human consciousness”). Cristof’s ethos is exactly the same, except that he manufactures a very individually tailored framework for Truman’s human consciousness.
Such is the nature of Cristof’s divine power (“I am the creator…” he informs Truman) that many have reasonably identified him with the gnostic demiurge, the false or corrupt creator (others have explicitly seen Cristof as the Antichrist; some rather inaccurately equate the two). Often, this derives from a fiercely accusatory, Christian standpoint, it should also be noted. Thus, The Truman Show is denounced as an intentionally misguiding text, since it becomes one that sinks an orthodoxly Christian reading of the world (but again, we have to remember that in the Niccol’s fiction, Truman is able to leave this false creation; indeed, Cristof explicitly allows him to – I’ve also seen the stairs Truman climbs at the end associated with freemasonry, although they aren’t of the winding variety).
As Cristof says, “There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you”. Of course, there are numerous different takes on the positioning and purview of the demiurge, depending on the branch of Gnosticism you pick, but the common thread of a corrupt or false (or illusory) material world is at the focus of modern treatments. And – leaving aside for a moment that the gnostic reading may, give or take, be an accurate one and that a Christian take is going to be necessarily partial – there are reasonable grounds to be doubtful over the resurgence of this belief in recent decades, be it as a predictive programming psyop designed to diminish association with the material realm and so invest further in the technocratic escape that seems imminent, or simply to embed an incipient despair over a futile existence (what could be worse than no God – an actively antagonistic one).
The other areas Christian – or gnostic – readings have leapt upon, being as the movement has a noteworthy religious association, is that The Truman Show codes itself as espousing a Flat Earth environment. Or at very least, an enclosed realm. The stars in the sky are not real stars. At the outset, a “ceiling” light crashes into the street near Truman bearing the legend “Sirius”. Which is itself resonant of the theory that satellites, if indeed there are any up there, are hooked into the dome over the Earth. Cristof, meanwhile, lives in an also non-physical moon (at one point, we hear the instruction “Cue the Sun”). Truman sets off in a boat and reaches the edge of the world (which suggests both the barrier of Antarctica and Time Bandits).
One could, if one wished, extended a further satirical reading – strangely, this isn’t a movie that makes much opportunity of that – to The Truman Show. After all, the posters at the travel agent warn “Travellers beware: Have you bought enough insurance to protect against – Terrorists Disease Wild Animals Street Gangs” (the first two of which have been directly used to restrict travel subsequently). In Seahaven, nuclear power is a fake (as some claim it to be) and allopathic medicine is a sham (as some claim it to be); the Geiger counters register hot for Truman, and the doctors don’t know what they’re doing (or nurses, come to that). It’s also a nice touch that anyone protesting Truman’s reality is bought off (dad) or supressed (Natasha).
It’s worth mentioning Carrey’s positioning in all this too, crossing over to a dramatic lead with just so much of his schtick along for the ride. He would embark on his own quest to investigate the nature of reality during the subsequent decade, taking in such (crassly) esoteric fare as The Number 23 and a personal association with Transcendental Meditation, as well as announcing himself as an anti-vaxer. He’d also be seen calling out the Illuminati on TV, leading to various suggestions as to the fate of his girlfriend (and notionally a historic blood sacrifice compromise for his success) and his subsequent doubling down on working according to script (anti-Trump rhetoric via grotesque artwork; returning to gurning Hollywood fare like Sonic the Hedgehog). If that’s the case, perhaps there’s resonance to Cristof’s “Truman prefers his cell, as you call it”. And that, since “You are the star”, Carrey must perform that prescribed role or else.