What if we all live inside a simulation? If you’re Neo, you might reply with “Whoa.” If you’re anyone that’s played a videogame in the last 20 years or, say, lived through a quarantine by transitioning from screen to screen, you might remain relatively unfazed compared to Keanu Reeves’ sci-fi chosen one. A Glitch in the Matrix, from director/editor Rodney Ascher, considers simulation theory—the long-running genre playground and thought experiment—using a handful of zealots and a slew of pop cultural pulls, following the rabbit hole through its history from Greek philosophers to wannabe stoner iconoclasts. The long-winded documentary is engrossing in spurts and isn’t particularly interested in convincing us of anything, but it’ll at least serve as the jumping-off point for a strange conversation or two.
That latter strength is Ascher’s bread and butter: Ascher’s done harrowing docs before (The Nightmare) and straight-up horror (a segment of ABCs of Death 2), but A Glitch in the Matrix is most like his Room 237. That doc allows a bunch of obsessives—ranging from convincing analysts to straight-up crackpots—to unpack their theories about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining in full force. It’s absurd, engaging and ultimately makes you want to look at one of the best horror movies ever made with a magnifying glass. A Glitch in the Matrix never inspires that level of curiosity with its existential musings.
Hung on a talk given by Philip K. Dick about a weirdo drug-fueled vision he once had, the doc’s split into chapters attempting to explain that “we’re really in The Matrix” idea. Dick’s talk eventually leads into his modern-day compatriots, who do their damnedest to explain their shared, yet different, existential crises. They all sound like people trying to convey the perception-altering aftereffects of an acid trip, just induced either by rigorous self-examination or sensory deprivation chambers. Or repeat viewings of The Matrix, of course.
These talking heads are morphed into VRChat-esque avatars, like a shiny polygonal swordsman or a robotic Anubis, which provides charming bits of deadpan humor and visual interest to what are essentially just Zoom calls. Then there are the animated segments of their experiences (either untextured videogame models or uncannily fleshy reenactments) and the low-res environmental tours extrapolated from a dreamy version of Google Earth. It’s all meant to be uncanny and off-putting in a particularly digital way, but mostly captures a kind of muddiness—still in a particularly digital way, though. This is all to say it’s not much to look at aside from its sci-fi film clips or archival footage, though digging through them provides just as much insight as its interviews.
Like its subjects, A Glitch in the Matrix is immersed in and inseparable from pop culture. Animation, videogames, mythology, sci-fi—you name it, the film uses it to clearly draw a link between the stories in the prevailing mediums of the day and an unerring sense that our experiences of the world are, in some way, false. Now, however, the literary musings of Dick and Neal Stephenson have been taken up as conspiracy theories, mixed in with the particular brand of Extremely Online bullshit from Elon Musk and his ilk. At one point we’re shown a Twitter exchange between the SpaceX founder and the official brand account of Rick and Morty. Those that didn’t sign up for The Joe Rogan Experience might find themselves wondering what they ever did to slight Ascher.
These smarter-than-thou wonks taking on simulation theory becomes another weirdly weaponized piece of The Matrix, joining the co-opting of the eye-opening “red pill” by some of the internet’s worst, used to distance them from the masses—effectively, people in general. Like any conspiracy, it’s all a matter of those that get it and those sheeple too lazy or stupid to figure it out.
Thankfully, A Glitch in the Matrix eventually interrogates these misconstrued and myopic applications of the theory that show the kind of empathy-free worldview that comes from believing you’re a chosen protagonist wandering through a world of computer code. It’s probably not good for your politics if you literally don’t consider others real. Unpacking what’s attractive and dangerous about this sends the doc to similar territory as last year’s Feels Good Man in its depiction of a nihilistic, disaffected class who’ve retreated into a digital dissociation from reality. This idea gets a final hurrah in the protracted finale, following a moving passage described by the disembodied voice of a Matrix-obsessed (and mentally ill) murderer. You feel submerged in his worldview, trapped in the odd labyrinth of his thoughts. If the rest of the film focused so much on putting us in the shoes of these believers—and understanding how that impacts living in the world—it would be much harder to get through, but also much better as a whole.
Considering that A Glitch in the Matrix’s primary power comes when you’re immersed in the ideas of those it observes, the chapter-based structure is ultimately clunky. When its anecdotes end and another screen denotes a shift in subtopic, it devolves from something perversely magical and transportative into a PowerPoint. You’re thrust out of the illusion like Neo noticing deja vu. But often, the scattershot ideas and even more uneven rigor used to assess them do that enough on their own.
While not compelling enough to be one of the two options—either a destructive or awakening force for our own personal simulations—winkingly proffered in the doc itself, A Glitch in the Matrix still has genuinely gripping segments. Sure, they’re usually undermined rather quickly by an annoying YouTube conspiracy theorist or shallowly explored tangent, but for a moment you can really understand the links drawn between religion, mythology and those throughout history wondering if there’s anything out there greater than what’s in front of them. While the complexity of this concept and its implications is dealt with rather lightly and with a tourist’s eye for oddball novelty, Ascher uses his expertise with the latter for a lingering dash of charm. It’s certainly the only documentary sporting clips from The Wizard of Oz, Troy and Ultimate Epic Battle Simulator—not a bug, but a feature for this Matrix.
Director: Rodney Ascher
Stars: Nick Bostrom, Joshua Cooke, Erik Davis, Paul Gude
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.