As we are about to enter the 2020’s, it’s hard to shake the idea that reality television and surveillance culture have become key concerns for humanity; television plumbs to lower and lower depths while the internet and social media increasingly makes it seem we’re being watch by some form of all-seeing big brother everyday.
When released in the summer of 1998, The Truman Show was very much viewed from the prism of science fiction, but an original and imaginative one that made it stand out triumphantly in a release schedule that included two asteroid thrillers, an Americanized Godzilla and three television to movie adaptations.
As the years have gone on and we’ve willingly allowed ourselves to be tracked and viewed, while reality television goes to more extreme lengths, the film has become less science fiction and more of a dark prophecy from the late 90s, warning us of where we were about to go.
Scripted by Andrew Niccol and directed by Peter Weir, there is a wealth of talent involved on both sides of the camera. With an acclaimed director and screenwriter behind the scenes, there would be an amazing risk taken when it came to casting the leading role of Truman himself.
Weir has always had a knack for casting outside the expected box when it comes to his gorgeously dramatic projects; for Dead Poets Society, he cast Robin Williams at the height of his comedic powers, while Witness saw Harrison Ford show a sensitive, romantic side after years of playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones.
For The Truman Show, Weir cast Jim Carrey who, while at the height of his A-list star power, and commanding $20 million a picture, was still known for talking out of his backside in Ace Ventura and poisoning Jeff Daniels with “Turbo Laxative” in Dumb and Dumber. Eyebrows were raised when Carrey joined the project and yet he would more than prove himself with arguably his finest, most nuanced and subtle performance.
There are moments dotted throughout where Carrey does bring his manic energy to proceedings, not least in the middle section of the film when his character begins to crack up due to his increasing levels of paranoia, but then the film goes and surprises us with a performance of great depth and subtlety, not least in his scenes with Natasha McElhone where he would show previously untapped subtlety, pathos and romantic leading man ability far and beyond the antics of Ace Ventura.
The film has forever remained a glorious piece of satire, but what was once regarded as genre or science fiction has taken on a darker undercurrent and could easily be viewed simply as satirical in this day and age. Truman may be an unwilling star of his own television show, viewed by millions across the world, but in real life we’ve pretty much allowed ourselves to be viewed by Christof’s (Ed Harris) the world over, albeit through social media and cookies on our favourite websites.
Complete with gorgeous symbolism and evocative story telling, the film has lost none of its power and has gotten better over the years, providing food for thought for anyone wanting to view the film on a deeper level.
A commercial and critical success in both the UK and the US, it was fully expected to be a major awards contender but was unfortunately waylaid by Shakespeare in Love, an insipid production that was dull and had nothing to say about anything, while in the following years The Truman Show has simply gotten better and more relevant.
Andrew Niccol’s screenplay may have been altered somewhat by Weir, the biggest change being the setting of New York to the fictional town of Seahaven, giving Truman’s life the air of a 50’s sitcom mixed in with a soap opera of the same era, but it’s another wonderful piece of work from a writer who has a nervy ability to explore humankind’s problems through a genre prism, and makes for a wonderful companion piece to Niccol’s other genre masterpiece Gattaca.
As for The Truman Show itself, its witty brand of fantasy, comedy and human drama still remains one of Hollywood’s greatest; from career best work by Carrey, to an unnerving Ed Harris performance and superb support from Laura Linney as Truman’s product placement sprouting wife, for a film that was released twenty years ago, it has only become more powerful as the years continue, becoming more and more about the now as the years and decades fly by.
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