The Truman Show has never felt more prescient, and more outdated
When we talk about movies that accurately predicted the future, we often think of the films with the boldest visions. 2001: A Space Odyssey; Blade Runner; The Terminator: the films we give credit to for their foresight into future society are usually tied to ambitious conceptions of technological advancement. But the film that might have had the most accurate realization of the future is one that feels a whole lot smaller than those blockbusters.
The Truman Show was released on June 5, 1998, twenty years ago today (it’s currently streaming on Netflix). The film debuted six years before Facebook, seven years before YouTube, eight years before Twitter, and more than a decade before Instagram and Snapchat. Reality television existed, but it would be a couple of years before shows like Big Brother and Survivor captured national audiences. It was not yet the norm for our lives to revolve around a digital plane of existence, documenting what we do, for everyone we know, all the time.
Now that social media has become so universally ingrained in our lives, The Truman Show feels astonishingly prescient. The movie follows Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a man who seemingly lives an idyllic small-town life. He has a picturesque house, a loving wife, and a good job. Truman is unaware, though, that nothing in his life is real: adopted by a corporation at birth, every moment in his life has been broadcast on television, and everyone he knows are actors in on the deception. Truman has accepted this life as his reality, but at age 30, his insatiable desire to explore the world beyond his hometown leads him to discover the truth.
The film’s predictive wisdom ranges from the minutiae to the monumental. ‘The Truman Show’ that the outside world sees on television is full of what we’d today call native advertising: A couple of businessmen repeatedly corner Truman by a billboard whenever they speak to get the Kaiser Chicken logo in the shot, and Truman’s wife endorses appliances directly to the camera. The need to keep Truman contained in his hometown also doubles as an opportunity to remark on the fear and paranoia the media can stoke. As Truman sits waiting in a travel agent’s office, he turns to looks at a poster of lightning striking through an airplane: It could happen to you!, the poster warns. And when a former cast member dressed as a homeless man tries to sneak back on set to tell Truman the truth, newspaper articles about the scourge of homelessness causes Truman’s mother to utter a sentiment that feels unsettlingly familiar today: “It's about time they cleaned up the trash downtown before we become just like the rest of the country.”
The film’s focus, though, and what it primarily gets so right about the world today, is our obsession with streaming a reality outside of our own. We’re told that billions have tuned in to watch Truman live his life, and director Peter Weir is wise to include Truman’s adoring fans as part of the story. As every moment of Truman’s life unfolds, we cut to a rotating band of rapt on-lookers: a packed bar stocked with Truman merchandise; a man in the bathtub; a couple of bored security guards. They’re invested in Truman’s life with a passion that few of us lend to the people that are actually in our lives, but is easily awakened in escapism. And yet (*spoiler*) when the show ends, one security guard immediately asks the other: “What else is on?” It’s another moment of foresight, one that foresaw content engagement as fleeting and the short nature of our attention spans.
Of course, ‘The Truman Show’ wouldn’t have even been been able to keep the attention span of a global audience for so long without such a captivating star. Jim Carrey is given more credit now as a legitimate actor than back when he was making movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but his turn as Truman Burbank might still be underrated. I think it’s his best. Carrey has always been an exaggerated, elastic actor, contorting his lanky body and wide grin to unnatural extremes. I’ve seen many actors put on a ‘forced smile,’ one that tells the audience something darker is going on inside. Only Carrey adds another layer to this: the smile hides the pain, but the pain is unknowing, as if he really is forcing a sort of perverse happiness onto himself when he smiles.
My favorite line of his might come from the scene in which he is asked at work to deliver a package across the island, necessitating a boat ride. The show has manipulated Truman into fearing the water so he will never try to leave the island. When the man at the boat docks asks him whether he wants a one-way ticket or a return ticket, Carrey says ‘return’ in the most deeply incredulous way, as if there could be no other answer, as if even uttering the words “one way” would be a dangerous act in itself.
For everything Carrey does to help The Truman Show create a truly insightful vision of the future, though, it’s off on a couple of key aspects. Truman Burbank is a man trapped in a television show without his consent, trying to escape a life of insincerity and constant cameras. Today, it’s the opposite: people put themselves inside the world Truman is trying to escape. People can create their own reality shows, between Snapchat stories, Instagram, and Facebook; they turned their lives into carefully calibrated narratives that exist outside of themselves. We don’t need Christof in the moon tower, telling us we can live a life without fear. A version of ourselves is already living that life online.
We are less like Truman, then, and more like his wife Meryl, who at the outset of the movie boasts that there is no difference between her private and public lives. She’s proud of this fact, because she gets to make her life in the image she wants it to be, in a reality she is able to control. It’s not really a concept The Truman Show focuses on, but it might be the most relevant part of the film to the Internet era. Once reality starts seeping in and the television version of herself is exposed as phony, Meryl breaks down completely, with the bottled up nervous psychosis that Laura Linney so perfectly emanates. She quickly leaves the show. It becomes evident that there is a difference between her private and public selves, differences that she may not have even seen herself until she was forced to recognize the falseness of her public life.
One other point The Truman Show gets wrong, sadly, is the universality of ‘The Truman Show’ audience. The film expertly foresaw streaming reality entertainment, but it did not reconcile that change with how it would atomize entertainment. Once it became possible to stream on-demand, personal choice became paramount. People wouldn’t gather in bars across the globe to watch ‘The Truman Show’; they might watch clips of it on Snapchat, or stream Truman’s teenage years on Netflix, or watch a debate about the ethics of the show on Facebook. The audience in The Truman Show is having a genuinely collective experience. Today, we might lend it a fraction of the attention they lend it, from the comfort of our own homes.
As much as the show about Truman’s life might struggle to capture audiences’ full attention today, the movie itself feels more and more like an all-time work of art (it is deeply affecting, and underrated as a visual work). It also feels increasingly important, as social media becomes more and more the means by which we organize and define our lives. The Truman Show might have been off on some things, but it’s gotten the defining features of our time more correct than most other films that seek to predict the future.
Perhaps that’s why we revere a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey more than The Truman Show. When the vision is grandiose, as in 2001, its full realization is always tantalizingly out of reach. The year 2001 may not have looked much like the film 2001, but the film got some pieces right, and the possibility of it fully coming to fruition can’t ever really be ruled out. The Truman Show took a shot at a specific, realistic version of the near future, and the world has already moved past its technology. But it hasn’t moved past the truths it raises. The Truman Show is my favorite movie about the future because it was never really about the future, but about what ails us right now.