With works like Witness (1985) and Dead Poets Society (1989) under his belt, Peter Weir directed The Truman Show in 1998, written by Andrew Niccol, establishing such a poignant social commentary that a condition was subsequently named after it.
In an existentialist take on reality, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the star of his own show. The reality show, created by Christof (Ed Harris), seeks to manipulate Truman’s surroundings and daily interactions in an effort to relay human behaviour and emotion to the viewers. For the entirety of his life, Truman has unwittingly followed a script – and while a number of experiences have veered him astray, for the most part, Truman has fulfilled the path set out for him by the creator and executive producer.
In this universe, Truman was the first child to be legally adopted by a corporation. Now, seemingly stuck in this cycle, it becomes abundantly clear that the unpredicted human moments that broke away from the programme influenced Truman’s scepticism much more than it originally seemed. As Truman attempts to express more free will, such as deciding to take a spontaneous road trip with his wife, the simulated reality falls into disarray with increasingly unusual vents.
At its very core, The Truman Show acts as an allegory for contemporary media as well as the existential questions humans have faced for centuries. Weir incorporates details and codes that draw attention to the significance of these motifs.
The audience is privy to the fact that The Truman Show is a constructed reality, where Truman is used as a human pawn for entertainment purposes. In order to translate this visually, the unconventional camera angles are pieced in, constantly reminding us that there are secret cameras surrounding Truman, and his environment has been constructed by a production team. This is supported by brief moments where the extras break out of character, or as the show begins to fall apart when there are glimpses of catering stands or actors rushing into scenes straight from the make-up chair.
There are strange and unique vantage points, including the conversation Truman has with Marlon while he restocks his shop, which is shot from within the vending machine. There are often high angle shots that mimic security camera footage or hidden camera surveillance. Not only do these serve as a constant reminder of the reality that has been manufactured for the purpose of entertainment, but also heightens the existing paranoia that Truman feels throughout the film.
The script plays an important role in demonstrating the artificiality of the circumstances. Although Truman operates without a script within this internal show, all those around him are hired actors, including Truman’s wife, who instructed to follow their lines. There is a degree of inauthenticity to their responses, simply used to encourage Truman to follow the pre-established programme for him. Within this, the actors are instructed to interrupt conversations to advertise products and sponsorships. The product placement is hyperbole to emphasise how often the media we consume follow similar practices.
In essence, the conventional cinematographic formats are adapted to conform to the manufactured environment, in an effort to demonstrate how overbearing and overarching this omnipotent power is.
Character and Prop Symbology
Throughout The Truman Show, there are codes that indicate the wider motifs of the narrative. In the first instance, the creator of the show is the primary indicator of the existential questions that Truman faces, primarily through its religious implications. Christof, the creator, directly alludes to the theological connotations of the plot. Christof possesses a name reminiscent of Jesus Christ, the son of God, which emphasises his position as creator and executive producer.
Christof is an omnipotent, omniscient figure, who directs Truman’s actions and controls his surroundings. Inevitably, this brings to the fore several questions, including to what extent our fates and destinies are decided for us and how much free will do we truly possess.
When Truman begins to veer away from his pre-established course, there are several codes that indicate this is all about to change. Truman works in an ordinary office job in the insurance industry, entering his corporate building on a daily basis through the revolving door. This sign becomes representative of his cyclical routine. The day he decides not to go into work, to avoid entering the building through the office door, he changes his course.
Truman breaks out of his torment of going around in circles, marking a fundamental transition from the ordinary to a journey of realisation, which ultimately breaks down the fourth wall between his reality and the outside world.
The chaos and disruption to the organised structure is represented as Truman begins to notice cracks and gaps in the set. One of the set lights falls out of the sky in front of Truman and as he examines it, there is a clear label that reads ‘Sirius (9 canis major)’. This explicitly makes reference to the constellation and the star Sirius, which has historically been associated as a symbol of guidance for travellers, as it is the brightest star in the sky. When the light falls outside his house, Weir leaves an explicit code that reveals Truman’s journey is about to begin his path of discovery.
Niccol and Weir’s work has inspired debates for the last few decades on existentialism, consumerism, the entertainment industry, philosophy, and religion, to name just a few of the motifs expressed in The Truman Show. The endless speculations are, in large part, thanks to the symbology present throughout the film along with the directorial choices in the camera work that successfully create these separate dimensions of a world within a world, wherein Truman’s final line almost expressly speaks to the audience: “In case I don’t see you – good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”