Ever since Neo first took the red pill, simulation theory has expanded across popular consciousness. The idea that the physical world as we know it is a façade, a veil that obscures true reality (or at least occludes overlapping realms), has a history at least as old as Plato’s allegory of the cave. Simulation theory, with its emphasis on digital technology, first took root in modern pop culture through the science fiction writing of Philip K. Dick (most notably in his VALIS trilogy), but not until the Wachowskis’ iconic 1999 film did the idea fully go mainstream. Now, with virtual-reality headsets flying off (often online) shelves amid exponentially accelerating technological advances in both gaming and science, influential figures like Elon Musk go so far as to assert that the probability we don’t live in a simulated reality is, in fact, virtually nil.

This topic proves fertile ground for documentarian Rodney Ascher. The director’s previous films Room 237 (2012) and The Nightmare (2015) focused respectively on Kubrick’s The Shining and sleep paralysis, featuring impassioned interviewees who looked for hidden meanings and re-lived unnerving phenomena. A Glitch in the Matrix does both, as the talking heads in the film—many of them physically replaced on screen by phantasmagoric, digitally animated avatars—each describe how they, at least at some point in their lives, drew the conclusion that they were living in a simulation. The film offers some valuable academic insight into the theory, particularly from Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, but much of it focuses on vividly rendered personal experiences from avid believers.

None of the voices in this film are more fervent in their belief than Philip K. Dick. Ascher weaves in ample archival footage of Dick giving a speech about his own divinely imparted simulation theory at a science fiction conference held in France in 1977, a time when cutting-edge computer simulations hadn’t advanced much beyond Pong. Dick espoused a belief that science, religion and philosophy are interconnected, a theme that ripples throughout his visionary work, and that thread unspools throughout much of this documentary as well, with one interviewee claiming that simulation theory is the only true marriage of science and religion.

Indeed, many of these interviews—particularly with those hidden behind digital avatars—scan as the product of zealotry. And as discussion shifts to the notion that only a small portion of our simulated world’s population are powered by real, living entities, and the rest are simply “non-playable characters,” there’s a whiff of psychopathy afoot. Ascher nimbly conjures within the viewer this sense of something hugely problematic, and then drills down into the subject full bore. In fact, he goes too far. A large portion of the film’s tail end is dedicated to the experiences of Joshua Cooke, a polite, introspective convicted murderer whose unspeakable act of violence is framed as though it was almost solely prompted by the then-19-year-old’s obsession with The Matrix and its trench-coated trappings, rather than by the years of abuse, bullying, social isolation and undiagnosed mental illness that are here given short shrift. While the film rightly leads into this segment by discussing the inherent peril of a worldview that everyone else is a soulless automaton, it’s derailed by the pitch-dark shift in tone from trippy thought experiments to exploitative true crime narrative.

Despite this significant misstep, which is exacerbated by the film’s already superfluous length, A Glitch in the Matrix offers heady food for thought. Ascher creates visual splendor through various stylized computer graphics interspersed throughout, while also drawing from a deep well of film clips, which range from Dick adaptations such as Total Recall or A Scanner Darkly to thematic parallels in movies like The Truman Show to (naturally) numerous shots from The Matrix. Rather than act as a vehicle for proving a particular phenomenological thesis, the film excels as a study in the psychology behind those who ardently believe in simulation theory, as well as in how the mind understands itself. The project is ambitious in scope; in addition to its intersectionality of science, religion and philosophy, it touches upon synchronicity, the Mandela Effect, déjà vu, movies, music, Nazis, first-person shooters, Minecraft, Schrödinger, parricide, reincarnation and sensory deprivation tanks. But in casting such a wide net, the film often comes across as somewhat unfocused, rife with abrupt shifts in tone. Still, amid the backdrop of an increasingly isolating and solipsistic world, there are fascinating ideas here, even if A Glitch in the Matrix doesn’t always connect.

Summary
Rather than act as a vehicle for proving a particular phenomenological thesis, the film excels as a study in the psychology behind those who ardently believe in simulation theory, as well as in how the mind understands itself.
60 %
Ambitious but Unfocused
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