“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” Perhaps we didn’t know it in 1998 but Peter Weir’s masterful media satire The Truman Show was on the cusp of something huge, a signifier of things to come, things that lay just around the corner. A world of change; surveillance and the widescale broadcasting of human and technological interaction on an unprecedented level – a level we may have pondered from time to time but rarely given much heed to – was coming.
Truman Burbank became a totem of this change and the film became his milestone moment, one we may not have fully appreciated then but one that has drawn us back on a wave of nostalgia time and time again. Twenty years on from its initial release, there’s no mistaking what the film was a precursor to.
At the time, The Truman Show was a massive worldwide hit. It made back its budget four times over, earned three Oscar nominations (for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay) and was one of the best reviewed films of the year. It was the peak of Weir’s career and, some would argue, Carrey’s too. The story of an abandoned baby adopted and raised by a corporation only for his entire life, every second of it, captured in a manufactured dome-like world and broadcast 24/7 to our own real world enraptured us all. Truman was the poor unwitting protagonist and like the movie inside the movie, we couldn’t take our eyes away either.
Truman arrived at the same time as Alex Proyas’ polarising sci-fi Dark City and a whole year before the likes of TV’s Big Brother, Cronenberg’s gaming satire eXistenZ, the inferior Truman-esque comedy Edtv and, of course, the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking The Matrix. Suddenly, terrifying visions of a not-too-distant future were being beamed directly into our homes. In hindsight, this trend feels like a natural progression of earlier genre fare such as Fortress, Demolition Man, Sliver, Lost Highway, Enemy of the State. In turn, all of these ’90s films were byproducts of the 1980s, heavily indebted to Videodrome, Sex, Lies, and Videotape and others.
But why is it that The Truman Show feels especially relevant today? It’s a great film, sure, with its charismatic lead, humorous yet thoughtful script, and it looks great. The film even helped to coin a psychological phenomenon, The Truman Show Delusion, and in Japan its influence spawned a very unfortunate copycat TV programme called Nasubi.
The Truman Show tapped into our collective anxieties and played off our growing obsession with reality television and celebrity culture. As the beating heart of the story, Truman is the only real figure in an otherwise fake world. We can all relate to him on some level. His palpable sense of ennui, which draws him away from Seahaven to explore the great beyond, is the same yearning that entices us away from our own humdrum lives. In 1998 Truman’s traumatic awakening resembled our own, as we came to terms with CCTV and the onset of mass surveillance.
Back in 1978, inventor Steve Mann experimented on himself by wearing different forms of what would become his Digital Eye Glass – a prosthetic device that functioned as both a camera and a television display. He honed his ‘sousveillant’ tool over the proceeding years, and by 1994 he was broadcasting his life 24 hours a day.
The internet was still in its infancy when, in 1996, Jennifer Ringley became one of the first people to make use of a webcam to ‘lifecast’ her existence through her now defunct website JenniCam. By the late ’90s, clip-on or exterior webcams were outmoded and computer manufacturers began building better cameras directly into the desktop and laptop screens. The possibilities seemed endless, with long distance human interfacing now widely accessible. Cameras were everywhere, and people began using them not only for security but creatively, often simply to to alleviate boredom.
By the early 2000s advances in technology had caught up with our demand for more instant connection. Computers were faster, wireless Wi-Fi was commonplace and various experiments like pseudo.com and DotComGuy came and went. In 2005 YouTube was born and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Truman Show was undoubtedly a product of its time, and it resonated precisely because it represented a brave new world, one which would be changed forever just a few years later by 9/11 – an event which further complicated our relationship with technology and particularly surveillance.
What would Truman Burbank make of 2018? Would he be able to assimilate into our world? Or would Seahaven suddenly not seem so bad? The internet is awash with fan theories exploring the various themes within the film – the marriage of convenience, the lingering passion for a long lost love, and questions of friendship and the morals of corporate power – that keep us coming back 20 years on.
Published 3 Jun 2018
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