It's the biggest television show in the world, with one star, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey). And here's the twist: he had no idea that he is the star, and has lived in this enormous studio since he was born, almost thirty years ago, making a landmark anniversary of The Truman Show something special for its loyal fans. He believes he is living in the sunny, island smalltown of Seahaven, and the reason he has never left is due to the creator, Christof (Ed Harris), ensuring that he is psychologically unable to thanks to a childhood trauma that saw him lose his fictional father. But what if he is about to wake up?
Well, it's good for ratings, if not the lasting appeal of the broadcast. Just before the reality television boom hit the media, there was this prescient item from first-time screenwriter Andrew Niccol, whose directorial debut was actually released before this, and the variable but often brilliant Australian director Peter Weir, finding his at times underused talent for creating off-kilter worlds had its finest example here. The reason that this went over so well with audiences and commentators alike was that it was rich with meaning and allegory: was it a canny take on the rise of modern celebrity and entertainment, or was it even an update of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve?
Actually, for all he goes through Truman could just as well have been Job, with Christof the God raining down perils upon him for reasons he can barely understand, having lived his life in a sealed bubble. Albeit a very big sealed bubble, one which is an almost perfect rendering of community that Truman is only too happy to buy into. When he begins to question what is going on around him, he effectively acts as if he is having a psychotic breakdown, except we know, and the viewers in the film know, that his paranoia is entirely justified. Carrey was taking on his first major serious role here, and was an inspired choice, rightfully earning acclaim though his trademark goofiness does threaten to break through occasionally.
That said, he did nail the personality of a real life sitcom character from yesteryear, squeaky clean and with his own catchphrases, and a life that is ordinary but cosy, with just a hint of yearning for something more. As he grows more aware, that yearning builds to a genuine unease that he is not being told the truth, as when a stage light falls from the sky (it's one of the "stars"), or he hears the radio talking about him (actually transmissions from the staff at the studio). The sequence, scored to Philip Glass, where Truman finally twigs that he is part of some kind of experiment where he is being watched and recorded day and night is truly hairs rising on the back of the neck stuff, expertly orchestrated by Weir for maximum impact because we feel his fear, but also the anticipation that things are about to change at last.
There were those who found this an uplifting tale, because it cleverly hits the highs that an episode of a long-running television series would, but dig deeper and The Truman Show was a caustically cynical film staring right back into the camera lens the planet relied on for its information and its diversion. Truman's ideal life is nothing but when it's revealed to be a prison for the benefit of the voyeurs on the outside, and Christof could just as easily be a media magnate as he is the rejected deity of his subject's world. The truth is, when Truman's position becomes impossible, that is when he cottons on that his life has been a sham for the amusement of others, the alternative is not much more pleasant. His life of banality and product placement has to end somehow, and in its way the film fed into the mistrust that emerged in the nineties and never went away: mistrust for your government, or even mistrust for your neighbour. That's what Truman has to look forward to; like a fairytale, asking what happened after "They all lived happily ever after" throws up some unsettling problems, all the more disquieting in this.