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A world of one's own

May contain spoilers


In a science magazine I used to read during my high school years, one of my favorite sections was on the science in SF movies. (The magazine is still published; whenever I come across it at the campus book store, it takes me back to when I was less jaded and more anti-social.) It answered my doubts on the climax sequence in "Total Recall" (1990), and pointed out that there were several implausible aspects in the premise of "Jurassic Park" (1993). In case of the movies like "Armageddon" (1998) and "Independence Day" (1996)--well, it didn't require a lot of scientific knowledge to discern that they were brainless.

While revisiting Peter Weir's smart comedy/drama "The Truman Show" (1998), several questions on its premise came back as before. How could they build such a huge construction like that, with "the normal world" inside it? How can they control the weather inside? (It is sort of amazing to see they have lighting equipment as bright as the sun itself.) How do the actors, who must have been playing their characters for years, work in this world? Do they have another life outside the studio? And is it possible that a voyeuristic show about one ordinary guy's daily life can become one of the most popular TV soap dramas on the Earth? Is there really enough profitability in creating and maintaining it?

The movie could provoke more questions if it were a realistic drama, but the movie is essentially a comic fable on how far we can go with the media technology available to us. Andrew Niccol's clever screenplay wisely sidesteps some of holes inherent in its premise with lots of humor and intelligence, and, when I checked its running time, I discovered almost half of the film is devoted to its fun with its hidden premise. Though this is more amusing to observe during the second watching, I agree with Roger Ebert that it is best for you to discover its premise for yourself without any information.

However, thanks to its popularity, most of us know about its big secret which was wrongly disclosed in the trailer when the movie came out in 1998. Yes, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), your average good neighbour, is living in a world completely artificial from the beginning to the end. He seems to be content with this sunny, well-lit environment. Every morning, he greets his neighbours across the road when he leaves for work with his famous catch phrase ("Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!").


At the town square, he always encounters the same people just before he enters into the local insurance company building. He is not particularly unhappy about his mediocre desk job, and, when the day is over, he comes back to his sweet home (equipped with green lawn and white picket fence, of course), and there is his cheery wife Meryl (Laura Linney), who talks and smiles like the latest version of a Stepford Wife programmed with commercials.




This has been a good life to Truman, but we come to see that his discontent has been silently growing while he smiles like the others in the town do. He knows there is the world beyond his hometown Seahaven, a nice, comfortable island town located between the ocean and the mainland. He has been yearning for getting out of the town, but has been blocked by several reasons, including his fear of water caused by an unfortunate incident in his childhood. And he still misses Lauren (Natascha McElhone), or Sylvia as she revealed to him during their last moment, who was suddenly whisked away from him for some reason when their relationship was about to grow.


The opening sequence of the movie is deceptive. We are presented with a series of behind-the-scene interviews with the producer and the main performers of the TV show. While Truman, who appears as himself in the show according to the credit, is not introduced, Christof (Ed Harris), the show's producer, succinctly summarizes its concept: ".... 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."


He does not exaggerate, because Truman has been the hero of the ultimate reality TV show throughout his whole life. He was broadcast even when he was a fetus in the womb. After he was legally adapted by the corporation (he was the first case), every moment of his life in Seahaven has been shown to the billions of viewers around the world, who are eager to see what will happen in the next chapter of his life, and wondering how his story will eventually end. Some of them are so obsessed with the show that we see one viewer even watching it in the bathtub.

The show has continued for nearly 30 years, and its popularity has been steady along with its high rating. Most of viewers know that it's Christof who pulls the strings behind the show, but that's okay with them; Truman is real, so his life is real in spite of being constantly controlled and manipulated. In other words, they can't resist the voyeuristic fun provided by the show; it is always interesting to us to observe another's private life, isn't it?


The main attraction of the show is that Truman doesn't know he is a TV star. That fact has been kept from him for all his life. Although he has the desire for adventure outside the town, he was raised and educated to be a conformist in the closed system he inhabits. One of the major sources of comedy in the film is how the actors and crew try to keep Truman in Seahaven and hide the truth from him. My personal favorite is a brief moment from his school days comparable to other funny school lesson scene in "Pleasantville" (1998): "I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan." -- " Oh, you're too late! There's nothing left to explore!"

But, as we have seen in the other movies about closed systems, cracks are bound to surface, so Truman becomes enlightened like the people of Pleasantville. He has never felt wrong about following his daily routine, but when he comes across one small weird incident on one fine day, he begins to perceive the other odd things in his life. His car radio captures a suspicious radio communication. He finds that one building, one he has taken for granted, is not what it seems to be on the outside. When he actively breaks his usual behavioral pattern during the exciting sequence accompanied with Phillip Glass' pulsating score from "Powaqqatsi" 1988), everything in his life suddenly looks and feels quite different to him. He senses that some kind of order he has never noticed before is revolving around him, and now he wants to know why.


The movie reveals its serious side beneath its comic surface at about this point, and Jim Carrey also becomes more serious than usual. For him, "The Truman Show" was a major turning point in his career where audiences discovered the quality of everyman beneath his elastic comic persona. It is not so surprising that some mentioned Jack Lemmon when they talked about his attempts with drama; as shown in this film and "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), he is capable of dialing down his rambunctious manic side if that is required.

Thanks to Carrey's well-balanced performance, Truman seems to us a likable ordinary guy we can easily identify with. He looks pleasant in a little too awkward and exaggerated way at first, but we understand that's how he was shaped in this fake world where everyone pretends to look happy and greets each other with smiling faces which feel as increasingly creepy as pod people. In fact, there is even a scene influenced by "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), in which everyone in town gathers in a group to search for Truman.


Carrey also lenders pathos and poignancy to Truman's supposedly private moments, such as when he tries to reconstruct Lauren's face with photos cut from fashion magazines. Everything around him is phony, and his life has been manipulated regardless of his will, but what he feels is real - that is why we feel sorry for him--like Sylvia, who came to really like him and care about him unlike others after their eyes first met.

Our lives are certainly not TV shows, but the movie implies that, like Truman, we also follow our own mundane routine without any question until we happen to step out of it. I noticed that the viewers of the Truman Show (including Sylvia who has been protesting against the show since she was fired and sent back to the world outside) seem to be stuck in their own spaces isolated from the real world, which is never shown in the film. Come to think of it, I have spent more than 10 years of my life on a campus, and this space has frequently shown me new things , mainly because my minimalistic life revolves around few spots--the department building, the library, the dormitory, the gym, and, occasionally, the local theater near campus. To be frank with you, though I guess it is only a side effect we have in the era of high definition, I sometimes look at the sky wondering whether it is special effect or not (I learned later that the psychiatrists have already termed that kind of delusion "The Truman Show Delusion", but don't worry --my case is just a brief amusing thought).

Several reviewers said that the movie never fully presents in what a sinister way Truman's world works. I heard Niccol's first draft was darker and intended as a thriller, but, as the creator/father of this world who presides over the show at the control station above the sky, Ed Harris subtly suggests the sinisterness behind Christof and his show while never looking like a villain on the TV screen. Christof casually talks about his show in an exclusive TV interview, but he never utters any words revealing its true nature. When Sylvia protests to him on the phone in the middle of the interview, he justifies his show with the plausible argument that he gives Truman a better world than the one outside. Christof may care about Truman as Big Daddy (do I have to tell you what his name signifies?), but the show always the first priority to him, and he is willing to continue it by any means necessary, though the rating is never higher than before when Truman rebels against his domination.

One interesting but unexplored aspect of the show is Truman's night time with his wife in their bedroom, which has been always hidden from the viewers. I have no clear idea about what they do, but it seems they do have a sex life. We have heard about good actors who are willing to do anything for their performances, but can they even give up their body rights for perfect acting as a real spouse? Judging from Laura Linney's performance, which looks relatively more neurotic than the others, I wonder whether the show has taken an emotional toll on Meryl, who has to do the job probably far harder than the heroine of "Last Tango in Paris" (1972). Having sex with her co-actor can be accepted as a part of the acting, but now she is scheduled to get pregnant, just to keep Truman in Seahaven. I am really curious about the conversation she and Christof had during salary negotiations before she agreed to his plan.


Along with "The Truman Show," Andrew Niccol made a career breakthrough thanks to another wonderful SF movie of my high school years, "Gatacca" (1997). As a biology major, I cannot help but giggle at several technologies depicted in the film while watching it, but the movie is nonetheless effective as a cautionary dystopian story with powerful human moments breathing inside its cold future world. It suggests that humanity may overcome technology when it comes to oppress human society, and so does "The Truman Show." During the final confrontation, Christof says, as the "God" who has watched everything in Truman's life through technology at his hand, he knows Truman better than Truman himself. Truman retorts: "You never had a camera in my head!"




More than 10 years have passed since these two films came out, and some aspects in their stories have become real. With rapid advances in Biotechnology, we can easily analyze the genomic information of an individual, and my mind immediately went back to "Gattaca" when I heard about the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which bans discrimination based on genetic information in health insurance and employment. In the case of "The Truman Show," we saw a huge rise of reality shows on TV not long after its theatrical release. However, these shows are closer to "Edtv" (1999), another movie with a similar yet different premise. People don't mind showing themselves on TV, and others go along with that. Truman would be amazed by them.

Truman becomes a "true man" in the end, but technology will prevail. Considering what the last shot of the movie suggests, I think they will try another big project to attract ever-present TV viewers. I remember one article suggesting an outrageous twist for the alternative ending. Truman finally meets Sylvia, and they start their happy life, but it turns out that this ending is just the beginning of the second season of The Truman Show: this time, the whole earth is the studio. It sounds quite preposterous, but who knows? The viewers will gladly watch it again, anyway.

"What else is on?"

"Yeah, let's see what else is on.

"Where is the TV guide?"

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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