Life is a theme park, and the theme is...life.
That's only one of the deep thoughts I had while watching The Truman Show, Peter Weir's deep-thought-provoking movie about the power of television. Starring Jim Carrey as a guy who has no idea that every minute of his life has been filmed for a round-the-clock "Real World"-like soap opera, The Truman Show is what you get when you cross Walt Disney with George Orwell (or, in TV terms, "Candid Camera" with "The Twilight Zone")--a dystopian nightmare in which the line between reality and reality-based programming has been not just crossed but erased. Reality-based programming is the only reality Carrey's Truman Burbank has ever known. Even more than the rest of us, he's a child of television...and its prisoner. But what a prison! Truman lives on Seahaven Island, a picture-perfect coastal community that appears to have been designed by Disney's imagineers. Less a '90s town than a '50s-TV town, Seahaven is a flurry of Victorian bric-a-brac and white picket fences burnished by an ever-smiling sun--a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. (The movie's exteriors were shot in Seaside, Fla., the neotraditional prototype for our own Middleton Hills.) And everybody's so friendly: It's like having Ozzie and Harriet living on one side of you, Ward and June Cleaver on the other. Truman, who's never been anywhere else, has no reason to disagree with this morning's newspaper headline, which declared Seahaven "The Best Place on Earth." Alas, there's trouble in paradise. While Truman's getting in his car to go to work one morning, a television-studio key light comes falling out of the sky. Later, Truman gets caught in a rainstorm that's no wider than he is. Unbeknownst to its star, "The Truman Show," which has been on the air for 30 uninterrupted years, is experiencing technical difficulties. For Seahaven is an enormous, domed Hollywood set, and Truman's family and friends and neighbors are what the folks at Disney like to call cast members--i.e., paid employees. Which explains why Truman's wife, Meryl (Laura Linney), is forever singing the praises of some handy-dandy kitchen aid. With no commercial breaks, "The Truman Show" is totally dependent on product placements. Of course, with billions of viewers worldwide, the show is in little danger of going broke, and Truman's first intimations that Seahaven is a smiley-faced concentration camp only enhance the show's appeal. Weir and scriptwriter Andrew Niccol (who wrote and directed Gattaca) have tapped into what we love most about our coolest medium, television--the element of control and the possibility (less every year) that things might spin out of control. "I am the creator...of a television show," says the God-like Christof (Ed Harris), who's been calling all the shots on "The Truman Show" since the show debuted with Truman's birth. A celestial control freak, Christof tells the sun when to rise and fall from his studio perch inside Seahaven's paper moon. Perhaps the creepiest thing about Christof, who serves as both Truman's creator and his Big Brother, is that he genuinely seems to love his creation, which he all but fashioned out of clay. The first child ever to be legally adopted by a corporation, Truman inhabits his body as if it were a corporate body--a TV character born of market research. And Carrey, who seems to have sprung fully formed from television's id, is uncannily well cast here. When he cocks his head to one side, smiles that pearly-white smile and says, "Good morning," it's as if the whole history of television were licking us in the face. As a telegenic Pinocchio, Carrey shows us parts of himself that we haven't seen before--not just the hostility that undergirds his comedy but the heart that doesn't. "I hereby proclaim this planet Trumania of the Burbank galaxy," Truman daydreams into his bathroom mirror one morning. If only he knew! With 5,000 cameras hidden all over Seahaven, Truman is the embodiment of the late 20th century's greatest fear and desire--that every move we make is being recorded and beamed out to the rest of the world. Andy Warhol said that, in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. The Truman Show suggests that, in the future, some of us will be famous our whole lives, and the rest of us will spend our whole lives watching them--the world as one giant couch-potato field. And instead of "Big Brother Is Watching You," our pledge of allegiance will be "Big Brother Is You, Watching." The latter was the title of a 1984 essay by television critic Marc Crispin Miller. One of Miller's points was that, with the rise of television, Big Brother no longer needs to keep tabs on us since he now knows what we're doing: We're watching television. The Truman Show regularly cuts away to the people who watch "The Truman Show," and lo and behold, they're a lot like us--mesmerized by the realer-than-real reality on the screen. Like us, they prefer apparent order over real chaos. And yet there's something in all of us that is repelled by Seahaven's streets, so safe and clean; we want to go after them with a jackhammer. Which is why we practically stand up and cheer when Truman, in a little boat called the Santa Maria, goes looking for the New World. What he leaves behind is a Brave New World that seems less a jab at television than a jab at Disney Land and Disney World. For what is Seahaven if not Uncle Walt's original dream for EPCOT--a domed community in which all life's problems would be swept into the dustbin of history? The movie's critique of television is less acute, if only because Truman is such a Candide-like figure, an eternal innocent. Couldn't a more biting satire have been made about a guy who wants to be on television 24 hours a day? And isn't the woman who plays Truman's wife an inherently more compelling character? How does she live with herself? Indeed, how do any of the actors live with themselves? The movie doesn't tell us.
Like television, The Truman Show is deeply shallow; it's the best "Twilight Zone" episode Rod Serling never got around to making. And yet it's a valuable medium-is-the-message movie--a warning that reality-based programming is replacing reality in our hearts and minds. I'm not sure I believe that, but Weir has done a magnificent job of showing us just how painful and pleasurable that outcome would be. "Cue the sun," Christof says when Truman, under cover of darkness, has eluded his hundreds of co-stars, his thousands of watchdogs, his billions of fans; and the sun, as ominously cheery as ever, lights up Seahaven's sky. It's an amazing demonstration of Christof's powers. God created his world in six days, but Christof's been at it for 30 years. The guy's bigger than Ed Sullivan.