‘A Glitch in the Matrix’ Takes an Absorbing Dive Into Simulation Theory

A Glitch in the Matrix” goes beyond being a mere documentary. A sensory experience, it is the kind of work where after the end credits roll you may walk outside and see everything in a slightly different light. This isn’t because the documentary has convinced you fully of its theories, but because director Rodney Ascher immerses the viewer so well in their environment. What if reality as we know it is not only a façade, but part of some grander design, a simulation? When we experience déjà vu or feel life is flowing per some unknown plan, are we simply tuning into the fabric of whatever game we are cogs in? Ascher ponders these questions, which in many ways connect to some of our oldest quandaries as human beings.

The starting point is the great science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who in 1977 is shown giving a talk in France where he reveals his certainty of having uncovered the artificial nature of our existence. Dick was essentially becoming one of the most famous proponents of what is known as “Simulation Theory,” the idea that Earth is actually part of an intricate simulation being run by unknown beings or possibly another civilization. Ascher’s clearest reference tool is videogames, both in examples and the documentary’s very aesthetic, which also uses many pop cultural references via film clips. The key movie is of course the Wachowskis’ 1999 classic “The Matrix,” which brought Simulation Theory into the mainstream with its story of humans trapped in an invented, machine-run reality. To discuss every angle of this idea Ascher interviews several “witnesses,” all hidden behind digital avatars. Their conversations are a mixture of testimonial and speculation. Each one is certain they have discovered for themselves the true nature of our possible artificial surroundings, but have different theories as to who or what is pulling the strings or operating the consoles.

Never does Ascher seem to suggest he is a believer, but as a filmmaker his documentaries have been explorations of how we question what we see. In “Room 237” he deciphered what could be the hidden meanings inside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and his masterfully unnerving “The Nightmare” ventured into the topic of sleep paralysis. At one point it pondered, with convincing arguments, if certain claims of alien abduction could be traced to the condition. “A Glitch in the Matrix” has an even more potent effect because Ascher blends digital effects with stock footage and interviews to create a fully dreamlike ambiance. The witnesses share stories that sound both hallucinatory and sincere. An avatar who with Roman armor and flaming hair, recalls going to church as a boy and noticing how everyone seemed to be singing hymns as if in some pre-programmed state. Jesse Orion, in some kind of spacesuit avatar, is convinced he has come across “non-player” characters in real life, meaning those casual individuals we bump into who repeat the same customary greetings or nothing at all. His interest was also sparked when Elon Musk seemed to hint he believes in Simulation Theory. Brother Laeo Mystwood, decked like a robotic jackal, was raised as a Christian but a dip into a sensory-deprivation pool made him realize he was made-up of code. He has also dismissed the seven-day week structure, “hacking it” if you will, and now abides by a 12-day week of his own design.

A broader theme in “A Glitch in the Matrix” becomes our very sense of living in a pre-packaged society. There are a few narrative holes in terms of Ascher’s exploration of the broader zones of the theory. For example, why would a simulation keep some societies stable and powerful while condemning others, like Yemen or Gaza, to endless warfare and suffering? But when contained to the U.S. or even countries in Asia where digital technology is easily blurring the line between truth and fiction, you can’t help but sympathize with the feeling we’re figures in a scheme. Even if some may scoff, researchers like Nick Bostrom, have published papers in serious journals about the subject. His 2003 piece is still influencing fresh takes by other writers. But the musings of someone like Jesse become intriguing to hear just because of their fantastical potential. At one point he wonders if when an artist like Kanye West has a fall in popularity it’s because whoever their “player” is has grown bored, like when someone gets so good at a videogame they begin to slack off. 

The darker side of the theory at the heart of the documentary involves its impact on how we relate to each other. If one believes all is simulated, would that devalue human life? Some interview subjects insist that instead it raises even deeper moral questions about solidarity. One of Ascher’s “witnesses” is Joshua Cooke, who at the age of 19 became obsessed with “The Matrix” to the point of madness. Cooke was so convinced that the world as he knew it was a construct that it led him first to imitate Keanu Reeves’s iconic dark wardrobe, and then to commit a horrific crime. Ascher isn’t suggesting “The Matrix” is to blame for Cooke’s actions, but instead uses his story as an example of how a sudden loss of faith in the very notion of reality can have extremely dangerous consequences. Cooke is the exception, the other witnesses sound more fascinated by every potential of their perceived discovery. Alex LeVine, whose avatar looks like an emoji face, is convinced a close call with Mexican police during a joy ride might be proof of certain moves being made by whoever his player is. Mystwood even admits he makes certain decisions in life to stay interesting to whoever his player is. 

“A Glitch in the Matrix” is both dense and easily watchable. Ascher combines cultural references from “The Terminator” to “Star Wars” while diving into questions of spiritualism and technology. One moment the documentary ponders how we already create alternate worlds in video games and another someone speculates about whether we can make contact with whatever is outside our matrix. Jesse just hopes we’re not in some hard drive that’s been thrown away. The late Philip K. Dick becomes a main character in his own right. Ascher structures much of the editing around Dick’s 1977 speech, where he details the experiences and visions he would later painstakingly try to explain in his “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.” Dick’s fiction was a journey through alternate histories and distortions of reality. Ascher throws in clips from films or TV taken from Dick’s work like “Minority Report” and “The Man in the High Castle.” The documentary dissects how Dick’s obsession with questioning what we think we see or know was based on concerns that went beyond fiction.

Because we obviously don’t have definitive proof to support the notion that the human experience is a simulation, “A Glitch in the Matrix” mostly offers theories based on countless what if’s. But it’s an absorbing experience. Ascher is not out to mock or even question his subjects. He takes them seriously as this is a chronicle of a specific idea. In a curious manner the documentary does touch on something maybe everyone can agree on: We wander through our streets and daily routines with set schedules and habits, but we rarely stop to truly pay attention to the world around us. Even if we may not be characters in some other civilization or species’ “arcade,” we’ve become so used to what we believe is our reality that it’s hard to break free from it.

A Glitch in the Matrix” releases Feb. 5 on VOD and select cities.