A Glitch in the Matrix
For those finding everything a bit too real at the moment, here’s a feature-length dive into the world of simulation theory – the growing idea, made popular by The Matrix franchise, that the world is a computer simulation and that ours is not in the “base” reality. Filmmaker Rodney Ascher clearly likes to look into the esoteric and the unsettling. His previous films have explored wild fan theories about The Shining (2012’s Room 237), and The Nightmare (2015) looked into the merging of cross-cultural science and mysticism surrounding the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
In A Glitch in the Matrix, which premieres at the Sundance Digital Festival this year, Ascher talks about the computer simulation theory to “eyewitnesses” and other experts and believers, as well as Nick Bostrom (whose 2003 essay Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? added intellectual heft to the theory), all via Zoom. The discussion has existed since Plato’s allegory of the Cave but has generally wafted in the more eccentric recesses of culture, until The Matrix brought it wider attention.
Some of the Zoom interviewees are styled in flamboyant avatars: one is rendered as a strangely adorable metallic Anubis whose geometric ears prick up as he gets excited; another is given a hairstyle of constantly moving red crystals. This is entertaining and apt in context.
A linking thread through the film is footage from a 1977 talk by given in Metz, France by Philip K Dick – perhaps the most high-profile and fanatical adherent to the theory. In the lecture, entitled If You Think this World Is Bad You Should See Some of the Others, Dick passionately asserts that his novels are not really fiction at all, but an attempt to disseminate his revelations regarding lateral universes, which some people (like him, after being doped up for a wisdom tooth extraction in 1974) can move between, or gain glimpses of a reality underneath the everyday “façade”. He is by no means the only believer: clips of Elon Musk exploring the probability we are in the “base” reality appear, perhaps unsurprisingly.
The narrative traces a thread from Plato to Christianity to Descartes to the Wachowski Brothers’ seminal work and beyond, using the interview footage, clips from the news, bleak and sometimes disturbing original animation, and imagery from The Matrix, The Wizard of Oz and Christianity. This all leads to a somewhat jittery presentation, the production suffering from cinematic ADHD: headlines and screen grabs shoot past before they can be properly read or taken in, and some talking heads are not introduced clearly enough. It’s a shame because the topic itself is very interesting, but the reasons for the belief in this ersatz reality are not fully explored.
Some of the testimonials are surprisingly moving, like when the crystal-haired man describes his sensing of unreality and says he is the “personification of loneliness”. Many of the believers seem alienated, disenfranchised and desperate to believe in something. It could be viewed almost as an unintentional state-of-the-nation of America, with this growing belief fed by underlying Christian faith mixed with immersion in hyperactive Internet culture and hyperreal video games. It would have been interesting to explore whether the theory is as popular outside the US and, if so, how the believers compare. There are other philosophical points that are not addressed in the film, for instance, does the prominence of Dick’s oeuvre become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did the author predict parts of the current reality or did he help to create it, in the way that Apple products self-consciously drew inspiration from the tablets used in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
A Glitch in the Matrix is exactly what one would expect from its title, in the sense that it hassles the synapses. It has some aggravating features, including overbearing, almost constant music and the aforementioned jittery style, but, though it can be a frustrating watch, the topic is fascinating.
A Glitch in the Matrix is released digitally on demand on 5th February 2021.
Watch the trailer for A Glitch in the Matrix here: