Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary A Glitch in the Matrix presents some interesting perspectives on simulation theory, the proposal that reality is in fact an artificial simulation of some kind, but never quite manages to get under the surface of the idea philosophically or scientifically, relying instead mostly on anecdotes about personal experience and a variety of pop culture references to try to engage with the ideas it purports to be investigating.
The film is clearly trying to appeal to a broad audience, interspersing its discussion of the subject at hand with clips of pop culture phenomena like Minecraft and Elon Musk. This is to attempt to portray where these ideas come from, what they are inspired by and how they are proliferated in the modern world. This method of filmmaking is at times effective, and Ascher’s film moves at a snappy yet easy to follow pace, but the obsession with framing the discussion in this way takes away from the nitty gritty of the actual philosophy or science at hand, almost trivialising it to the level of a discussion in a pub, complete with random anecdotes and bold, unsupported assertions.
The film is at its most interesting at two different points. The first is in its discussion of iconic science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s 1977 lecture in France where he posits the idea that there is a reality other than the one being experienced by humanity at that moment in time. Dick’s thoughts are documented in the sprawling Exegesis, a collection of his journals where he attempts to make sense of his ‘recovered memories’ of this other present. Dick’s certainty about the reality of simulation theory comes across in his words, and a deeper exploration of those thoughts would have been an interesting avenue to go down, but the film opts instead to touch on them now and again, preferring its talking head interviews where Ascher portrays the different ways people reach the same conclusion: that the reality of the world they are living in is an illusion and thus must be a simulation. These are fun anecdotes, but they don’t get under the skin of the issue, and at times it feels like the film revels too much in the incidental quality of the stories and how they can be related to some pop culture phenomena, be that a film or a reference to a famous billionaire, as well as the graphics Ascher has created to make the film itself an allusion to a classic science fiction style, with intertitles narrated by a robotic voice and a futuristic soundtrack to boot, to truly grapple with the ideas scientifically and philosophically.
The second of those two points is Ascher’s interview with Joshua Cooke. A super-fan of The Matrix, the seminal science fiction film about simulation theory by The Wachowskis, Cooke became so convinced that he too was living in a simulation that he shot and killed his parents in 2003. Cooke talks candidly to Ascher about his thought process at the time and what precisely led up to his actions, and Ascher uses the interview to portray Cooke’s world at the time in the same video game-like CGI imagery the rest of the film revels in. It is the most impactful section of the film, and Cooke’s recollections are genuinely chilling. Whether or not Ascher is enhancing the interview with his visual aides or the film is far too self-indulgent and should dial back on the computer animated shenanigans is a debate in itself, but there is an undeniable power to those moments and it is an impactful depiction of what strong belief in such a hypothesis can do to someone, or more accurately, make someone do.
It’s in these moments, when the film is at its most philosophical and contemplative, examining the impact and power of a theory like this, that it is at its most interesting. Coming in at just under two hours, the endless archive footage in the rest of the film starts to feel superfluous compared to the attempts to engage with the ideas more fully, feeling a little more like a YouTube compilation than a serious documentary. This is also true of its central artifice, the sometimes fun and sometimes annoying insistence on making the film itself appear like a science fiction video game, but there is some joy to be had here, and while it’s not as hard hitting or intelligent as one might hope, instead often devolving into silliness, A Glitch in the Matrix could at least serve as a satisfactory introduction to engagement with such interesting ideas.
A Glitch in the Matrix is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 10th.