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Rodney Ascher’s movies dwell on absurd theories until they start to make a weird kind of sense. His provocative feature-length debut “Room 237” mashed up a range of wild theories about the meaning of “The Shining” (Kubrick admitting he faked the moon landing, of course) and his terrifying “The Nightmare” finds victims of sleep paralysis musing on whether they’ve had bonafide supernatural encounters. Now comes “A Glitch in the Matrix,” a meandering but imaginative riff on same scary-fun approach to actualizing outrageous ideas — but this one widens the scope.
The so-called “simulation theory” has floated around in various forms for millennia, but became more pronounced after the success “The Matrix” encouraged many viewers to question the reality of their surroundings. Drawing on interviews with 10 experts and internet theorists with an endearing mashup of film clips and trippy 3-D animation, “A Glitch in the Matrix” adapts to the internal logic of its echo chamber until starts to sound pretty convincing on its own terms. If you’re not already one of the diehards convinced we’re living in a simulation, this movie might actually get you there.
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While Ascher casts a wide net, “A Glitch in the Matrix” works quite well as an overview of the various epistemological questions it raises. The musings of Ascher’s subjects range from Descartes and Neo to Philip K. Dick and Elon Musk, as they map out the evolution of the simulation theory and how it became such a vast source of speculation. Some of Ascher’s subjects sound like they’ve spent too long digging through message boards and YouTube loons, but Ascher is the ultimate chronicler of the “extremely online” effect. His rambling assemblage of voices zig and zag, with some observations more engrossing than others, but they create the collective impression of how a single outrageous assertion can gain traction through the number of voices who back it up.
Some voices have quite the megaphone. Ascher builds his foundation around fascinating archival material from a 1977 lecture delivered by Phillip K. Dick, five years before his death, where he made the unequivocal assertion that “We are living in a computer-simulated reality” as a disbelieving crowd looked on. Sure, Dick’s logic turned on inexplicable flashbacks to non-existent memories likely triggered by the sodium pentathol he received for a recent dental surgery, but the prescience of his sci-fi novels — from “The Man in the High Castle” to “A Scanner Darkly” — lend just enough authority to these claims for modern devotees to take the baton and run. These include Musk, who repeatedly asserrs that “the argue for the simulation is quite strong.” No one should turn to an eccentric billionaire troll for existential insights, but Ascher lets his subjects have fun batting it around.
Ascher zips through a dizzying montage of video games and virtual reality as Musk puts the pieces together in clips taken from his interviews: Digital experiences continue to grow more photorealistic, suggesting they will eventually become indistinguishable from our reality. If that’s the case, why not apply the inverse logic? Ascher doesn’t give voice to anyone who might answer that question: “A Glitch in the Matrix” is strictly a partisan affair. You either roll with the argument or shrug it off from the start.
Even if you do, Ascher provides plenty of reasons to stay tuned, including playful 3-D motion-captured animation that obscures the faces of his many subjects (reducing them to cyborgs, talking animals, and other quirky avatars), an effect that allows the filmmaker to work through the speculation about digital existence in its own language. Beyond that, several of his subjects are well-spoken to avoid the impression of a conspiracy theory pileup, including philosophy professor Nick Bostrom, whose 2003 essay “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” remains a cornerstone of simulation theory advocates.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to question the sanity of this theory, as well as the danger of unstable minds believing nothing around it matters. “A Glitch in the Matrix” doesn’t shy from the dark side, as it builds to a prolonged disturbing sequence recounting the history of the “Matrix Defense” of Joshua Cooke, who murdered his parents after watching “The Matrix” a few too many times. Cooke eventually rejected his own attorneys’ argument and now works to help others shake free of the same delusion. The tick-tock of his recollections amount to the most harrowing piece of filmmaking in Ascher’s roster to date.
The movie also falls short of addressing some of the more substantial ways that the simulation theory echoes across modern times. Produced at a moment of extreme conspiratorial mayhem, vast pockets of the American public are primed to disbelieve much about the rules governing their world. Fake news doesn’t figure into Ascher’s investigation, and perhaps that seems a bit out of scope, but that gap feels like a missed opportunity.
The unfathomable aspect of a year that fundamentally changed human life would seem relevant to any reality-versus-fantasy assessment, but “A Glitch in the Matrix” doesn’t touch the pandemic. (It came after its completion; the movie was originally set to premiere at festivals before lockdowns occurred.) “A Glitch in the Matrix” still feels timely in that it visits a metaphysical crisis and then sorts it out. The movie’s concluding moments imply a powerful means of dealing with a future that could be fake: The world might be different from what we see, but it’s worth a shot anyway.
“A Glitch in the Matrix” premiered in the Midnight section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures will release it on Friday, February 5 in theaters and on demand.
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