Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of the Truman Show. When Truman is a baby, Christof (Ed Harris) somehow buys him. He is placed in a fictional town, Seahaven, and surrounded with actors. Christof broadcasts every minute of Truman’s life. And Truman has no idea his friends and family are paid actors. So that’s terrifying.
Truman only begins to discover the truth when a lamp, labeled with the name of a star, falls from the artificial sky one day. After that he notices things, like everyone knows his name, he has never left Seahaven, and his wife will act like she’s in an infomercial and try to shill products. When the entire town turns against him, refusing to let him leave, Truman escapes the only way he can: by sailing across Seahaven’s body of water to the edge of the world. There he bumps into the horizon, finds an EXIT door, and escapes into the real world. It’s like Under the Dome, if Stephen King wasn’t a horror writer.
A couple things about this movie jump out at me.The audience has to be most of the planet, because the show’s overhead must be huge; Christof enclosed the entire town in an arcology dome, and has a weather control device (something most supervillains have to put on lay-a-way). The governments of the world must not exist, or are so corrupt that “money over everything” is official policy. And the cast, crew, and audience must absolutely believe that Truman has a good life, because it only takes one defector to ruin the show.
At the end of the movie, Christof tries to drown Truman, preferring a magnificent death to Truman’s escape. When Truman survives, Christof claims Truman brings people hope and inspiration. He even asks Truman to stay. Something Truman does provides the world with enough satisfaction to justify all this.
My first thought was nuclear apocalypse, because the world must be some twisted ruin for people to think Truman’s life is acceptable. It would also explain the dome; perhaps Christof has fenced off a healthy area of the planet and is selling dreams of what life used to be to a devastated population.
The audience doesn’t really fit the Mad Max marauder type, though. There are old people, fat security guards, and a nice bar. The world looks okay. But these people still watch Truman, each day, as he toils through life, despite the fact that they apparently have normal lives themselves. Reality television is a form of escapism too; most rely on a gimmick (The Biggest Loser) or the antics of people filmed in just the right way to make them seem terrible (literally any contest-style reality show). All Truman does is live a normal life.
Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner, which became the reason Ridley Scott still has a career. In the story, humans live on a ruined earth. Most of the animals are dead, so people try to raise personal livestock, or if they can’t afford it, “electric” simulacra. The protagonist, Deckard, has an electric sheep, and fears people will find out (it’s a social no-no). He takes a job to hunt down androids capable of nearly perfectly simulating human beings. They lack empathy, however, and a complicated test can reveal them.
It’s left out of the movie, but the book also shows that people are capable of “dialing” their emotions. Deckard avoids a fight with his wife by choosing a more pleasant mood. He also regularly logs into a simulation of a tormented figure rolling a stone eternally up a hill. Living with near-human androids has degraded human perception of reality, so they have to engage in something “real” to maintain their empathy and humanity. But, they are still living a lie, in denial of what humanity actually means.
The Truman Show serves the same purpose. Truman is the suffering saint; his lack of reality, and the life he suffers, makes the pale lives of the audience seem bright and real in comparison. No matter what their day was like, the audience can dial into Truman and adjust their emotions according to his life.
Truman’s world might be very close to ours, but it’s suffered something that makes engaging in life through Truman more acceptable than really living – he’s both sheep and shepherd, cared for by the audience and leading them through what life ought to be. And at the same time, he’s contemptible, because they can watch him poop and he doesn’t know.
I see two arguments about what happens after the ending. Truman abandons Seahaven, sails to freedom after nearly drowning in Christof’s artificial storm, and finds his world is truly false when he bumps into the “sky.” He leaves with his usual greeting: “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”
Truman doesn’t curse or even seem to hate Christof. And the audience loves it. The ending is a montage of cheers and people flipping out. He’s provided their comfort for thirty years, and now Truman’s victory is the audience’s victory. As the chosen one, he led them through the hero’s journey to a heroic “ending.”
Truman is an artificially selected chosen one, however, not picked by fate. Christof had to know Truman would grow into a perfectly average (Jim Carrey-ish) adult, with no mental or physical problems, because anything else would have ruined his show. Truman’s revelations about his life, and by extension the audience’s lives, don’t have the same impact as a “real” chosen one. The audience watches him discover them, and they cheer like they’re watching football game.
The chosen one is an excuse for why “ONE MAN” can make a difference. Truman might not even be able to integrate into society, since he’s never actually lived in it, just in the television version. His life has as much to do with reality as Leave it to Beaver has to do with the actual 1950s.
We all wish (as the audience that watches Truman does) that we could be that one special person, chosen by destiny (or Ed Harris — close enough) to… do something. Other than be born, live as our birth and means dictate, then die. We need the chosen one myth, it keeps us from losing our minds in the vast, uncaring cosmos.
Truman shows that a chosen one is the avatar for the pointlessness of the audience’s lives, not a bringer of light and reason. Once he is gone, taking the inspiration and hope the audience relies on, we really only have two options: abandon the myth and try to find or make meaning in life, or, as the security guards say, “See what else is on.”