By Gabrielle Marceau
In 1977, Philip K. Dick gave a speech titled “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others,” in which he revealed that many of his dystopian novels weren’t the products of his imagination or dreams, but came from recovered memories of actual alternate worlds. Dick was entirely sincere, and this realization plagued him. Footage of this speech (and of Dick’s skeptical French audience) punctuate Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix, which explores the psychological and cultural impacts of that moment when science fiction seeps into our reality.
In Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (2012), we hear narrators discuss their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980). Though the theories range from the reasonable to the ridiculous, they are all essentially presented the same way: Ascher takes a big step back and lets the participants, in a sense, tell on themselves. It’s an almost maddening exercise in endurance to hear some of these harebrained theories presented without critique and with such formal rigour. Throughout his filmography—from his short The S from Hell (2010), which explores a half-serious theory about the nightmare-inducing 1964 Screen Gems logo, to The Nightmare (2015), his documentary about night terrors—Ascher approaches all his subjects with the belief that they are being honest, even when they aren’t particularly exacting or introspective.
A Glitch in the Matrix is also about searching for codes where there may just be randomness, but here the filmmaking is looser, even playful. We also get to see the narrators (here called “eyewitnesses”) for the first time in Ascher’s work, although several are shrouded in non-human digital avatars devised by the filmmaker and his team; we even see the director himself briefly Skyping with one of the eyewitnesses, who is pseudonymously named Brother Leo Mystwood. Ascher is also using new narrative tools: a robotic voice narrates the film as green text flashes across a mid-century TV screen (similar to the Deep Image Radiola from the white room in The Matrix ); a dizzying amount of material is taken from YouTube videos, online articles, archival footage, and video games; and there are elaborate and evocative animated sequences in which landscapes are grids and people are statues carved out of soap. While Room 237 and The Nightmare were almost claustrophobic, A Glitch in the Matrix is a restless, kaleidoscopic portrait of our media-saturated moment.
In making a film about simulation theory, Ascher doesn’t shy away from the moral considerations of believing that the world is fake. The most provocative moment of confrontation comes via Joshua Cooke, who became obsessed with The Matrix as an alienated and abused teen. He identified so profoundly with Neo and his world that he began to believe that others weren’t real, which (along with many other factors) culminated in him killing his adoptive parents. Cooke’s experience is the extreme outcome of the solipsism that all the participants in Glitch express to some degree: some won’t let their sense of reality affect the way they move through the world, and some are going to be, in the words of one eyewitness, “chaotic about it.” But the suggestion of a connection between the isolation of digital immersion and the (for lack of a better term) school-shooter phenomenon is an uneasy one. It’s been a long time since Michael Moore critiqued this same theory in his own kaleidoscopic zeitgeist documentary, Bowling for Columbine (2002). This isn’t to say that A Glitch in the Matrix is forcing the point; its strength lies precisely in the way that it neither subscribes to nor debunks any particular theory. As tends to be the case, the question is more interesting than the answer.
While Cooke’s tale is particularly harrowing, some of the eyewitness’ experiences are benign enough, even uplifting. Brother Leo Mystwood’s realization, while immersed in a sensory deprivation tank, that he is just made of code that’s part of a grander binary scheme sounds a lot like mindfulness practices that encourage you to see yourself as an indistinguishable part of a global system of energy. But some claims are alarmingly solipsistic, like Alex Levine’s belief that most of the people around him aren’t conscious beings but non-player characters in a video game. Paule Gude says that only now, in his mid-40s, is he able to see that other people are real and not just part of a simulation (though he’s self-aware enough to note that it was probably simpler for him to deal with people if he thought they were fake). In The Matrix, Neo is horrified when his world is revealed to be a lie; for a moment, he falls, overwhelmed and repulsed. But the eyewitnesses (all of them men) express a longing for the simulation to be real, since their real lives are somehow disappointing, full of drudgery and isolation.
For many of the figures in the film—be they scholars, simulation enthusiasts, or corporate titans like Elon Musk—simulation theory isn’t a coping mechanism, but more of a thought experiment. Maybe our reality is too limited for someone like Musk, who has the resources (and maybe boredom) to chase simulations and plan a mission to Mars. One of the foundational simulation theories suggests that our descendants will develop computing power that could create billions of perfect “ancestor simulations,” which would almost certainly count our reality among them. It’s a theory that can have little to no impact on your life, even if you believe it. There is, however, one eyewitness theory that I genuinely don’t want to believe: that Musk himself is one of the advanced beings that drops into our simulation every once in a while, the way a player drops into a multiplayer video game.
If Musk is the secret and otherworldly emissary of simulation theory, then The Matrix is the clarion call, a film that makes you feel like you’re in on a secret even as that secret is also totally self-evident to everyone watching, as the film states it explicitly. Simulation theory has the same attraction: you don’t need any special access to peek behind the curtain of reality, you just need to pay attention to the clues all around you. Perhaps looking for signs of the construct makes your surroundings, no matter how banal, feel special: that an unfathomably superior intelligence would use their immense computer power to create our little homes, our little friend groups, and our little lives is quite flattering.
What’s interesting about The Matrix is that it says a lot more about the past than the future. The last time I saw The Matrix was on a grainy 35mm print, and the nu-metal soundtrack and cyber-punk fashion made me nostalgic for a time when they regularly shot blockbusters on film. For a movie that made us all shiver at the prospect of total digital immersion, The Matrix now looks almost quaint. From the vantage point of 2021, 1999 seems like a much less alienating era. In some ways, Ascher’s film is already inspiring nostalgia; most of the interviews are done over Skype, and that telltale ringtone is the sound of a pre-Zoom, and pre-COVID, era. Neither The Matrix nor A Glitch in the Matrix are about truth, but rather about the fantasies of their present moment. And that’s the impression Ascher’s film leaves: that our generally agreed-upon reality—whether it’s the product of scientists poking at our brains in a vat, the computer generations of our unfathomably intelligent descendants, or the derangement of total media immersion—is just as exhausting, claustrophobic, random, boring, and exhilarating as any simulation.