The rise of the internet paved the way for conspiracies, but 2021 has felt the consequences sooner than most years. Social media conspiracies, including Q-Anon and Pizzagate, spark violence and spread misinformation. For more than twenty years, concepts and ideas have spread like wildfire. One such concept is Simulation Theory. The theory states we unknowingly live inside a system that destroys our free will and choices in life. The idea came roaring into the public consciousness after the release of The Matrix in 1999. In the years that followed, video games broke new barriers for realism, virtual reality fulfilled its potential, and Elon Musk evangelized about the idea. Filmmaker Rodney Ascher, director of other galaxy-brain gems like Room 237, brings together unique perspectives on the idea. His latest, A Glitch in the Matrix, shines a light on the philosophical and dangerous consequences of belief in the fast-spreading theory.
The concept of awakening to a different reality is not unique to the 21st century. Ascher visits three transformative texts to explain the long-rooted concepts that built Simulation Theory. The most obvious draw comes from The Wachowski’s 1999 sci-fi and action epic from which the film draws its title. However, Plato’s parable of “The Cave,” and a lecture given by Phillip K. Dick in 1977 provide the bones of its narrative spread. As humans, we live in ignorance until we are exposed to a new reality. Simulation Theory extends from that idea, insisting the world we experience is something else’s creation.
The material gathered to composite the film is impressive. Academic texts, including Nick Bostrom’s “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation” from 2003, help justify the film’s as a worthwhile philosophical exercise. Footage of films, TV series, Philip K. Dick lectures, and video games provide an endless sea of archival footage. Interviews with “witnesses” provide first-hand accounts of how belief in Simulation Theory can erode our mental state.
Stylistically, A Glitch in the Matrix upends the fairly traditional documentary choice of showing a “talking head” expert. Instead, the filmmakers embed video-game renderings over those who narrate our way into the film. Some become Egyptian gods, and others appear as lion warriors. Taking on the visage of a game avatar does more than reward the audience with very cool visuals (though it’s impossible to ignore the sight of a character vaping). This stylistic choice builds a meta-textual analysis of the theory that shows real buy-in from the filmmakers. It’s not simply that they want to capture those who believe the theory on camera, but they want to respect their philosophical view of the world.
Despite this clever device, the process can lead us to some dark places philosophically. Films like A Glitch in the Matrix tends to delve into nihilism. The avatars, created to hide the witnesses from view, drop into massive digital worlds with half-rendered characters around them. The vast loneliness becomes visually upsetting. Many images are anxiety-inducing. This scary comment on the theory warns of the dangers that it may pose for those fighting mental illness and instability.
Ascher never lets his documentary dissolves into a nihilistic hellscape it could easily become. His team clearly understands the consequences this could yield in the wrong hands. Several sequences are truly harrowing and unsettling to the core. One sequence embraces a horror movie aesthetic, strapping the audience into an uncomfortable and hideous moment of violence. Ascher does not shy away from the human cost of this theory. Instead, he desires to shed the nihilism from the theory. He lets his commentators question those who instinctively harm others, allowing the film to advocate for performing good deeds. Despite the instinct for pessimism, a focus on empathy is essential to avoid leaving the audience in despair.
Those who prefer non-philosophical trips should stay away from A Glitch in the Matrix, despite its entertaining execution. Ascher and his team find joy in the heavy concept, creating an infectious curiosity to dive deeper. The energy and unique visuals make A Glitch in the Matrix a must-see entry at the festival. The film does sag at times, suggesting the film could stand to lose five to ten minutes. Despite this, A Glitch in the Matrix gives Sundance its first truly mind-warping doc in 2021.