'A Glitch in the Matrix': Film Review | Sundance 2021

A Glitch in the Matrix
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Another seductive trip into the world of fringe ideas.

'Room 237' director Rodney Ascher follows the rabbit hole of simulation theory in his latest documentary.

After three feature documentaries, Rodney Ascher has certainly found his niche. In his The Shining-themed Room 237The Nightmare, about those afflicted with sleep paralysis, and his new A Glitch in the Matrix, he eagerly pushes nonfiction conventions right up to the border of identification with sometimes disturbed interviewees, exploring ideas that burrow into their heads and can wreck or at least transform their lives.

This time around it's simulation theory, the idea that everything around us is an illusion, manufactured (probably with super-advanced computers) by a creator who isn't that capital-C Creator they pray to in church. The idea's more compelling by the year, but Ascher reaches back to explore its origins — as far back as Plato's cave, but with special attention to the paranoiac genius of Philip K. Dick. Though it leaves some avenues underexplored and gives a bit too much attention to the sci-fi landmark name-checked in its title, the film makes for engrossing, sometimes unsettling viewing. And it may be the one picture this year that would be less effective in a Park City theater than it is in this virtual fest — ideally watched by an audience of one, in a curtains-drawn room where noon is indistinguishable from 3 a.m., connected to a nearly forgotten "real" world only by a data cable and deliveries made by anonymous servants of the Internet. Watch it by yourself, and it might look like a message from an unseen realm, sent from beings who've been liberated from a false reality and want to bring you with them.

As usual, Ascher prioritizes talking to those in the grip of an idea, even when a more traditional documentarian might want to validate their perspectives with the help of presumably objective outsiders. Though we do meet some academics and culture journalists here, the movie belongs to four "eyewitnesses" who have lived large chunks of their lives believing the world is some sort of simulation. We see each man sitting in front of a webcam, his face and torso transformed into a videogame avatar by motion-capture animation. (A fifth "eyewitness" is heard but not seen: Joshua Cooke, whose thinking became so distorted by a The Matrix obsession that he shot and killed both his parents.)

Each came to his beliefs in a different way — through a child's-eye view of an uncanny adult world, say, or by tracking certain kinds of everyday coincidences and finding patterns that seemed meaningful. Their different backgrounds and ideas about the nature of our manufactured world hints at a diversity of ideas the movie can't hope to contain: Is there some vast, Matrix-like field of sleeping humans whose lives are just computer-assisted dreams, or are we simply lines of code like a meteorologist's weather simulation? Is the simulated world a vast network of independent artificial intelligences, or am I the only sentient being in the sim, surrounded by "non-player characters" whose design is only complex enough to simulate intelligence — and in the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, not even that? (Ascher, you're on notice: If your next movie tries to humanize QAnon, I'm not reviewing it.)

Similarly, the possible reasons for, and ramifications of, a simulated reality are too numerous to explore here. Are we the creations of some very advanced "posthuman" race who are trying to understand their ancestors by re-creating human history? Are our actions being used to test the impact of proposed social policies in a real world not much unlike our own? Are we just some kind of Truman Show entertainment for our unseen programmers?

And if everything around us is just ones and zeros in a vast hard drive somewhere, does it matter if I get some guns and go full Grand Theft Auto, just to see how it feels? The movie points out how conducive Matrix-style mythologies — in which you think you're the only one who sees the world for what it really is — are to the thinking that leads to mass killings in high schools.

The ideas being tossed around are heady enough even to entertain a viewer who doesn't take them seriously. But Ascher's visual effects team amplifies them greatly — especially when illustrating the tragic experience of Cooke. They turn the house he shared with his parents into a distorted computer illustration, like the result of a CPU, or a brain, trying to make sense of corrupted data.

Then there's Mr. Dick, who risked humiliation in 1977, sitting in front of an audience in France and admitting he believed the world was a computer simulation. Three years earlier, after being given drugs for an oral surgery, he experienced a strange revelation; he began to sense the existence of alternate versions of his own reality. He struggled to make sense of these intuitions for years, and Glitch returns to his speech often. His mad-prophet visions counterbalance more sober interviews with Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose academic work has helped simulation theory find its way into mainstream conversations.

Bostrom uses the clear language of logic to guess the odds that we're not in what believers call "base reality," but are in one of countless simulations its inhabitants have programmed. Elsewhere in the world of ideas, more hard-boiled thinkers are grousing: If it's impossible to know for sure, and impossible to know the nature of whatever more-real world might exist beyond ours, and you couldn't do anything about it if you did know, what's the point in wondering about it?

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production company: Campfire
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures (Available Friday, February 5 in theaters and on demand)
Director-editor: Rodney Ascher
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein
Executive producers: Colin Frederick, Rodney Ascher, Ross Girard, David Carrico, Adam Paulsen
Composer: Jonathan Snipes

108 minutes