Updated: Jul 9
As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
The Truman Show was a comedy/drama/science fiction movie released in 1998, written by Andrew Niccol, directed by Peter Weir, starring Jim Carrey as none other than Truman Burbank, and Laura Linney as his pretend wife—Meryl. The movie, if you haven't already heard, is about a man who has the perfect life—a perfect job, a perfect wife, perfect neighbors, and everything he could ever want. Except, none of it is "real" in the sense that Truman is unknowingly the main character in a reality TV show, and the cast is all actors and actresses.
Truman's life is so artificially perfect, it is rendered meaningless. Or at least that is what some would claim. The film is also cleverly examined in the book Movies and the Meaning of Life by Kimberly Blessing; and in here, we find that Blessing relates Truman's experience to that of Descartes' and his evil demon. That is, Descartes envisioned a world in which a demon tricked him into believing the entire external world was real. Descartes, having locked himself away in a room to ponder the question if all is merely an illusion, eventually came up with something similar to, I think, therefore I am. That is, the one thing the demon could not fabricate was Descartes. Keep in mind, the art of locking one's self away to ponder reality is apparently a lost art only now being rediscovered by both philosophers and non-philosophers alike due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, much to the rejoice of devils abound.
Blessing also brings up Robert Nozick's famous thought experiment outlined in his book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In this thought experiment, Nozick conjures up not demons, but rather technology—a machine that can replicate any experience via an interface with the human mind. Be it love, be it joy, be it scoring the winning touchdown in a football game, be it whatever you want, the machine can trick the mind into that thinking fiction is non-fiction. Yet, ask most people if they'd accept such a reality, and most would balk at the idea.
But where have we seen the Nozick argument before on endev42? Vanilla Sky (movie) and the book What's It All About?: Philosophy And The Meaning Of Life by Julian Baggini. What both Blessing and Baggini missed, as initially examined in the Vanilla Sky movie review, is that although our immediate response is to balk at such a demonic invention as that of Nozick's, society virtually flocks to the virtual, to fiction. Be it video games, be it movies, be it books, be it reality TV; and therein lies the rub, the brilliance about the movie we are watching ... the shrewdness ... we are watching people watching a TV show, a world so perfect, that if we could join it, at least temporarily, we would. We did (that is, if you watched the movie). After all, was the Sims not one of the most success video games ever? Did reality TV not become extremely popular in the 90s? One could reason, that although we'd balk at such a reality, given a chance, a large percentage of the world's population would opt-in, Netflix and chill, as opposed to facing reality. Besides, what is real and what isn't? Virtual reality is just a subset of reality. Truman's artificial world is also just a subset of reality. Neither is an illusion; both are real.
Blessing states the following question in her article on The Truman Show: For it seems that in order for a life—my life—to be meaningful, I’d have to exercise control over it: where I go to college, what I chose for a major or career, where I live, who I marry, which friends I spend my time with, where I go on vacation, which activities I pursue in my leisure time. It’s pretty hard to think of my life being meaningful if I’m a mere puppet, or actor, playing out a role scripted by someone else. Put another way, before we can even begin to figure out the meaning of life, either of“life” in general or our own particular lives, hadn’t we better be sure that the lives we are living are truly ours?
But the thing about life is that we have a lot less free will than we think. Scientists like Paul Thagard, Stephen Hawking, and many others have concluded that free will is nothing but an illusion, and yet, these scientists build Rube Goldberg like philosophies to still find meaning in life. These types of theories, such as the case with Hawking, are so complexly cunning, that they leave one in awe, leave us with something profound to contemplate for years to come. But at the same time, they feel slightly contrived, as was the case with Thagard. Without diving into the science behind it here, as was reasoned in the Thagard article, there is likely some happy medium between a complete lack of free will and absolute free will. That is, most of what we do in life is in response to external environmental forces, programmed upbringing, and other things that build out what we refer to as our "self." A God, by the classic Judeo-Christian definition, would have 100% free will. A fish in a small round tank would have 0% free will. A person, well, we're somewhere in between—somewhere on the lower end of the scale.
Interestingly, the creator of Truman's utopian paradise (aka Seahaven), is a guy named Christof, which means the "bearer of Christ." Christof also, unsurprisingly, has a bit of a God complex. Through the research conducted by endev42, there is a clear correlation between religion and meaning in life. In general, those, particularly from western Judeo-Christian type religions, will find meaning through fulfilling God's purpose, a purpose that is usually unknown and incomprehensible to the human mind. Though, most still believe that everything happens for a reason as part of God's unfathomable master plan, which results in a paradox. It is reasoned that Truman's life lacks meaning in his Seahaven utopia, because someone else is directing his life, planning it out, giving everyone and everything in it a purpose and direction. But yet, apply the same logic to religion, and life is suddenly meaningful. Why is this? Is it because one is "real" and the other is not. And if one is an illusion, which one is really "real?" The reality TV show, or the religion? On this, Christof states, Listen to me, Truman! There's no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies, the same deceit; but in my world, you have nothing to fear. Was Christof wrong to drown Truman's father? Was the Judeo-Christian God wrong to cause the flood in Genesis killing most of creation?
Back to the movie. Well, it starts with Truman nearly being killed by a falling spotlight from the heavens, an omen that leads to a mid-life crisis of sorts. This, among other things, gets Truman thinking about life beyond utopia, his past, other lives he could have lived, women he could have married, and if there is more to the world than just Seahaven Island. So he plans to find out, to take a trip to Fiji, and if that doesn't pan out, Chicago will do just fine. But Christof plots against him every step of the way, from proactively drowning Truman's father when he was a kid to causing a fake meltdown at the local nuclear power plant. All of this prompts Truman to ask his friend Marlon, Maybe I'm being set up for something. You ever think of that, Marlon? That your while life has been building towards something? Marlon responds, No. Truman, eventually when confronted with the choice to leave heaven, to escape perfection, opts to leave, rejecting something Christof stated earlier in the movie, We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that. Christof decides not to drown his most beloved creation in the end, but only after exhausting much effort on the contrary.
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 4
Uniqueness – 5
Did you see the movie? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.