The Truman Show Review
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in the coastal town of Seahaven. He works for an insurance company and he and his wife Meryl (Laura Linney) are considering starting a family. But what Truman doesn’t know is that Seahaven is a giant set, that Meryl, best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) and everyone else he meets from day to day are all actors…and every moment of his every day is beamed out to a television audience of millions. But Truman doesn’t know this. Only one day, he begins to suspect something…
The 1990s were a strange decade for Peter Weir. He’d finished the Eighties with one of his biggest hits, Dead Poets Society, an impeccably made and acted though rather false and sentimental film, and seemed to be casting about for something new. Green Card was a small-scale romantic comedy financed out of Hollywood and it did well enough. Fearless, a return to the semi-mystical themes of his earlier Australian work, though with Hollywood stars and budget, flopped, though in its first half at least it contains some of Weir’s best work. Five years passed before Weir made another film, but it was worth the wait: The Truman Show.
The Truman Show is only seven years old as I write this, but I’m going to stick my neck out and name it as a key film of the 1990s. That decade’s films seem to move in two contradictory directions. Firstly, there’s a move towards artifice, in the rise of CGI effects, in the postmodern “ironic” use of styles and genres…to the point where films can be entirely generated inside a computer, or ones where the actors are the only non-digital elements. (Sin City could be seen as a culmination of all of these trends.) On the other hand, there was a move towards greater realism…in the use of low-tech digital cinematography, the blurring of lines between reality and fiction (The Blair Witch Project and Adaptation being prime examples of this), the possibilities of long takes and hence no “manipulation” that digital could bring, and an interest in unmediated “reality”. I first saw The Truman Show at a press screening, and afterwards a prominent film critic was heard to say that the concept was flawed: no-one would want to watch real people doing real things in real time. He was wrong of course: we now have reality TV. But the idea had to have been in the ether already, or it would never have caught on the way it did.
Of course these ideas weren’t new, but something in the zeitgeist made them current. Andrew Niccol’s script is certainly sophisticated by the usual standards of screen SF, but it had its antecedents in the written kind. Much has been made of its resemblance to the works of Philip K. Dick, in particular his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. And you could say that Nigel Kneale anticipated reality TV way back in 1968 in The Year of the Sex Olympics.
The rest of this review contains plot spoilers. If you wish to avoid them, please go to the section headed “The DVD” below.
Niccol’s script is unusually structured, with the bulk of the exposition kept until an hour in. Although it’s Truman’s show, his creator Christof (Ed Harris) is a second protagonist, one who becomes equally dominant in the film’s second half. The two don’t meet until the very end, when Truman confronts his “god”. It’s a moment beautifully played by both actors – and Weir’s imagery, as the boat’s prow punctures the “sky”, is worthy of Magritte - and it hides a subtle anti-religious message: if we are a mature species then we must make our own way in life, however comfortable we may be with a “god” looking after us.
Weir, his DP Peter Biziou and production designer Dennis Glassner give Seahaven a sense of heightened reality: everything is a little too bright, colourful and tidy to be quite real. At the time, Jim Carrey was seen as a comedian of the wild-and-crazy school, but Weir must have seen something in him few had, because Carrey in a far more restrained register is a revelation. (I speak as someone who found him all but unwatchable in Ace Ventura and Batman Forever.) This side of Carrey was developed further in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but it built on foundations laid here. He’s backed up by a fine supporting cast. (Weir fans please note: the man watching the show in his bathtub is played by Terry Camilleri, the lead actor of Weir’s first feature The Cars That Ate Paris.) Behind the cameras, a notable contribution I haven’t mentioned yet is Burkhard Dallwitz’s music score. It sounds quite Philip Glass-like, and indeed Glass does contribute to the soundtrack as well as making a cameo appearance in the film.
The Truman Show does have some flaws, notably a shying away from some of the non-PG implications of its premise. (It completely avoids the issue that Meryl, or rather the actress playing her, is being paid to have sex with Truman…even to bear a child by him.) But it’s a film that shows that work of intelligence and style – not to mention warmth and humour – can still be made in Hollywood, that audiences don’t always have to check their brains in at the door, and there is indeed an audience for films like this.
The Truman Show is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, which opens the ratio up from the intended ratio of 1.85:1. Some will tell you that this film was shot in 1.66:1 “to make it look like a TV show”. That may have been a reason why the film was shot “flat”, with spherical lenses, rather than in Scope, but this is a major-studio release intended for showing in 2000+ cinemas across the United States and the great majority of those cinemas cannot show anything other than 1.85:1 or Scope. The transfer is first rate: sharp, colourful, with good shadow detail and strong blacks. I compared it to my copy of the UK Region 2 release, which appears to be identical except that the UK disc has thin black bars, widening the ratio to approximately 1.80:1.
The main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. This film is a product of the digital sound era, and the sound is inevitably sharper and with a greater dynamic range than the analogue-to-digital remix that is on the soundtrack of Witness. That said, it’s not likely to be a demo disc: surround usage is restrained, mainly dominated by the music score. Otherwise the surrounds and the subwoofer don’t really come to life except in short scenes such as the storm at sea towards the end. There’s not a great deal of difference between this and the surround-encoded 2.0 tracks also on this DVD. Oddly, despite one of the 2.0 tracks being a French dub, that language is not represented among the subtitle options. Subtitles are however available for the extras as well as the feature. There are twenty-four chapter stops.
As with the Witness DVD released alongside this one, a lengthy featurette makes up for the lack of a commentary track. “How’s It Going to End? The Making of The Truman Show” is a two-part documentary (total length 41:45: there is a “play all” option). It’s half the length of the Witness making-of, possibly due to fewer interviewees despite this being a much more recent film. Andrew Niccol is the major absentee, as are any member of the principal crew apart from Dennis Glassner. Those interviewed include Weir, producer Edward S. Feldman, and from the cast Carrey, Linney, Harris and Emmerich. It’s shot on video in a ratio of 16:9, but the lighting seems odd: skin tones tend towards orange, and in Feldman’s case almost red. This is a solid making-of piece, though I wouldn’t have minded seeing more.
“Faux Finishing: The Visual Effects of The Truman Show” (13:16) is a short piece that seems overlong. The point is made quite early that this isn’t a film where the visual effects aren’t an end in themselves, but serve the story, much of it to add extra storeys to on-set buildings. There is one bravura effects shot, though: the pull back from Seahaven to outside the dome that encloses Truman’s world.
Four deleted or extended sequences follow, which can be selected either separately or together. These are presented in a small 1.85:1 image windowboxed on all four sides within a 16:9 frame, and a timecode running below the picture. They are “Product Placement” (5:25), “Truman Suspicious” (4:23), “The Future Cast Meeting” (2:08) and “Truman Missing” (1:12). You can see why these were deleted: pacing reasons, or for spelling out thematic or plot points already established elsewhere. “The Future Cast Meeting” is particularly interesting, though, as in it Christof outlines his future plans for the show, and in particular for Truman’s yet-to-be-conceived child.
In addition to that is a small photo gallery, a teaser trailer (1:52) and a full theatrical trailer (2:23) and two TV spots (playable separately or together, total length 1:06). “Previews” takes you through to the trailers which play when the disc starts, but which can be skipped: Airplane, Tommy Boy, the John Wayne DVD Collection and Macgyver Season One.
The Region 2 edition so far only contains the two trailers as extras, but until Paramount UK upgrades, this Region 1 Special Edition is so far the definitive version of The Truman Show on DVD.