It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all the vicissitudes.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, “The Precession of Simulacra.”
Documentarian Rodney Ascher is no stranger to the bizarre or irregular. In his lengthy career, he’s explored the interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by way of Room 237 (2012), examined the living horror of sleep paralysis in The Nightmare (2015), and investigated the truth behind the mask of musician El Duce in The El Duce Tapes (2019). His latest project is a mixture of pop culture analysis and philosophical pontification as seeks to ask the question, “Are we living in a simulation?” Mixing anecdotal evidence with that of respected experts, A Glitch in the Matrix is the kind of doc where just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it pulls the rug right out from underneath you.
The notion of what’s now commonly known as “Simulation Theory” has appeared in a variety of forms throughout humanity’s existence. The most current version comes from Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, one of the participants in the documentary, whose essay “Are We Living in a Simulation” considers whether the reality we see before us is actually a computer program and we’re just following a program. If all of this is confusing, think of it this way: Simulation Theory asks that we, humanity, consider for a moment as to whether what we think is real is, in fact, not. That what we consider to be real is a false reality and that true reality, or Base Reality, is beyond our current comprehension as what we see, taste, touch, and hear tricks our brain into perceiving a hyper-reality.
If so, let’s explore this using the same pop culture anchor Ascher relies on for the bulk of the documentary in order to make processing the content more palatable: the Wachowski sisters’ 1999 sci-fi action thriller The Matrix. In that film, the central character played by Keanu Reeves discovers that what he thinks is the real world is actually a program and his true corporal body is in a vat. Once awoken from sleep, he escapes and joins a resistance group to wake the rest kept trapped by sentient robots. This is the stuff of nightmares and, as original as it is, is not particularly new as science-fiction author Philip K. Dick has been exploring the tenuous relationship between humanity and reality for some time in stories like short story The Minority Report (1956) which became Minority Report (2002), Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) which became Blade Runner (1982), We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (short story, 1966) which became Total Recall (1990/2012), and A Scanner Darkly (1977) adapted in 2006. These stories and more have woven themselves into popular culture to such a degree that the resulting memes have lost all sense of awareness of origin. This is likely why Ascher utilizes a 1977 lecture by Dick in which the author elucidates his personal believes on Simulation Theory as someone who believes he’s lived a different life than he’s living at that present moment. Between The Matrix and Dick’s lecture, the pop culture foundation is set for a modern look at a fairly ancient philosophical theory.
Here’s where things take a turn. Even though Ascher and his team interview several experts in the field of philosophy and cultural analysis, these individuals seem to only serve as the color commentary for the primary anecdotal discussions given by several individuals are, in a strange reality, the true focus of explaining Simulation Theory. The execution of this is brilliant. Ascher worked with Mindbomb Films to devise synthetic avatars to represent each of the visible speakers — Paul Gude, Alex LeVine, Brother Læo Mystwood, and Jesse Orion — dubbed “Eyewitnesses” which serve to both protect their identities and enable Ascher to construct facsimiles of various parts of their testimony. While it’s a tad comical at first, the visual styling of the eyewitnesses empowers Ascher to design Glitch to be more malleable in it’s storytelling so that he can show the audience, us, a version of a twisted reality. A simulation inside a simulation, if you will. These technological aspects help bring home the more esoteric elements discussed by Dick, the experts, and the eyewitnesses without losing any of the sincerity of the explanations.
However, the same can’t be said of the content itself. Perhaps it’s the academic in me or the fact that I studied philosophy in both undergrad and graduate school, but the fact that the bulk of the documentary comes from eyewitness accounts that can be dismissed mostly out of hand is continually frustrating. Even the fact that Ascher uses an example from Reddit wherein someone described themselves, “I am a NPC (non-player character), as some form of evidence to the fact that Simulation Theory is real boggles the mind. Why? Because when one of the eyewitnesses declares that we see NPCs all the time when we walk around, a reference to the people we come across as we live our daily lives, can be debunked by using the Socratic Method by simply asking the supposed NPC questions. Does this now get us more toward the Turing Test a bit away from Simulation Theory? Yes. But the point is that it’s easier to think of oneself as the main character in a video game world than it is to consider that you just don’t know how to connect with the people in it.
The one saving grace of Glitch comes in the latter portion of the film when Ascher interviews Joshua Cooke. After spending the bulk of the documentary presenting pseudo-philosophical malarkey intermixed with actual thoughtful evidence, Cooke is introduced and his story slowly unfurled. If you’re not familiar with Cooke as I was not, then I preserve the experience for you by not getting into it. What is say to explore, though, is that Ascher seems to pivot away from eyewitnesses-as-experts when Cooke’s portion is concluded by way of a clip of one of the eyewitnesses declaring that maybe it wasn’t that all their respective experiences were just part of a simulation, but that they didn’t have the proper context to understand what was happening. This recognition along with Cooke’s powerful testimony creates a fissure that seems ready to erupt and destroy all of the so-called evidence that has come before it. Is Ascher presenting a documentary that wants to convince you, the audience, that Simulation Theory is real or is he suggesting that perhaps those who believe in it just lack the proper context or perspective to understand how they fit in the world? One of these answers is soul-shattering and the other brings peace. Only you can tell which one is right for you.
Head to the official Magnolia Pictures website for more information on A Glitch in the Matrix.
World premiere at Sundance 2021 January 31st, 2021.
In select theaters and on VOD February 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.