Do you crave hazy 2am dorm conversations about like, what’s even reality, man and What if life was really just a big dream? If that is the case, A glitch in the matrix maybe for you. Everyone can probably keep moving. There is a fascinating film to be made on simulation theory, but it isn’t.
What’s frustrating is that every now and then it seems like it could have been. Director Rodney Ascher (Room 237) takes a broad view of simulation theory – the belief that the entirety of existence as we know it is a computer simulation, at the The matrix. The film traces the idea back to Plato’s time, reflects on its similarities (and differences) with more familiar religious traditions, and tries to understand some of its moral and philosophical implications.
It attracts thinkers like Nick Bostrom, the Swedish philosopher whose 2003 article helped spread the idea; Chris Ware, the designer behind Jimmy corrigan; and Emily Posthast, artist and historian. Ascher returns several times to Philip K. Dick’s 1977 speech detailing the theory – which, more than that of the Wachowski Matrix films, constitute the real backbone of the film. The film’s anecdotes and theses are illustrated with primitive-looking CG models and clips of everything from Rick and morty To The Wizard of Oz To Defend your life.
There is a fascinating film to be made on simulation theory, but it isn’t.
But his explorations of all those rabbit holes tend to be shallow. Ascher seems much more interested in talking to a small handful of ordinary people who are extremely interested in this theory. They are granted anonymity in the form of eerie computer-generated avatars, like a monster encased in an astronaut costume or a vaguely lion shape with the satin sheen of a Christmas ornament. I can only assume that they are meant to playfully remind the viewer to drop our assumptions about what counts as real and what not. But they also have the effect of portraying these people as fools not worth taking seriously, and very little of what they have to say belies that impression.
These guys (and they’re all guys, as far as we can tell; Posthast is the only female interview subject in the entire film) talk at length about their childhood formative experiences and the supposedly crazy coincidences that ‘they encountered that could not be explained by theory. Either way, the anecdotes raise the same questions: That’s it? Is this your stunning proof that the theory is real? That you thought of an orange fish and saw a sign with an orange fish on it? A more skeptical interviewer might have focused more on these topics, brushed them aside with alternative theories, or encouraged them to look more into their own psychologies. But Ascher is apparently happy to just listen to them ramble on.
A glitch in the matrix
Credit: Sundance Institute
It wasn’t until very late in the film that A glitch in the matrix really try to tackle the darker and more toxic extensions of this theory, in the form of an in-depth interview with Joshua Cooke, a Matrix obsessive who killed her parents in 2003. Her story is gruesome and heartbreaking, and she’s apparently meant to serve in the worst-case film as an example of assuming other humans aren’t real. But Cooke himself gives the impression that the murders were less of an over-enthusiastic belief in simulation theory and more a consequence of much more mundane horrors, like the abuse he was subjected to at home, harassment, and more he suffered in school and undiagnosed mental disorders. disease he struggled with throughout.
So why A glitch in the matrix spend so much time relaying unnecessary anecdotes from random people, and so little exploring why these people are so obsessed with this theory in the first place? Why does it only touch on the interactions of theory with religion, masculinity or sanity in the blink of an eye? Why doesn’t he spend more time examining the implications he has for society? In The matrix, a pre-red pill Neo spends his days frustrated with the feeling that there is something wrong, that a deeper, more meaningful truth lies just beyond his grasp. After having watched A glitch in the matrix, I feel the same.
A glitch in the matrix premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in theaters and on demand on Friday, February 5.