Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein Director: Rodney Ascher Cast: Paul Gude, Alex Levine, Brother Laeo Mystwood, Jesse Orion, Nick Bostrom, Erik Davis, Emily Pothast, Joshua Cooke, Chris Ware and Jeremy Felts Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
The notion—or, if you prefer, theory, or question—of simulated reality is hardly new; Rodney Ascher’s documentary traces it as far back as Plato’s myth of the cave as an epistemological allegory in the “Republic,” and adds Descartes, regarded as the father of modern philosophy, as one who treated it seriously, and more recently Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, in his 2003 article “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” in Philosophical Quarterly, made it a serious academic proposition.
But while Ascher shows some interest in the philosophical proponents of the idea, or scholarly critics of it (portions of interviews with Bostrom, for instance, are included), the fundamental subject of “A Glitch in the Matrix” is its power as a contemporary popular obsession. In that respect the film is a broader follow-up to his “Room 237,” which showcased fanatics who had formulated complicated theories about the secret meanings they believe that Stanley Kubrick had implanted in “The Shining.”
Ascher sees the modern obsession with simulated reality as beginning with science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who gave a public talk about his adherence to it 1977, pointing out how it was reflected in much of his fiction. His revelation, Dick said, arose from a mystical experience involving repressed memories he had after a dental procedure three years earlier. That talk—excerpts from which punctuate “Glitch,” was the origin of what can be called the Matrix Theory, the notion that we are living in a computer-programmed reality without knowing it, fabricated for some reason by an unknown higher intelligence. The idea found its most popular expression in the 1999 movie starring Keanu Reaves and its sequels, which has had a profound effect on some viewers.
Ascher’s film is largely composed of interviewers with believers, most of whom deliver their stories—in which they trace their conviction to recollections from childhood, the interpretations of “synchronicities” in their lives, or experiences playing video games, or even experiences in sensory-deprivation tanks—in the personas of computer-animated avatars, their rambling discourse punctuated by animated sequences and clips from video games that mimic the process. There’s a note of condescension in the director’s presentation of this material, but he takes it into the realm of the grotesque when he presents the voice of Joshua Cooke, a young Virginia man who fell under the spell of “The Matrix”—and the black trenchcoat motif he’d already come to love from “The Crow”—until it took over his life and led him to a horrendous act believing that what he did made no difference, since nothing he experienced or did was real to him. With Cooke’s matter-of-fact delivery accompanied by vaguely hallucinatory visuals, the segment is creepily effective as an example of how far the belief can go. Ascher adds clips of “supportive” testimony from the likes of Elon Musk to demonstrate how it’s entered the mainstream.
“A Glitch in the Matrix” is efficiently put together, with Ascher and Rachel Tejada’s giving the varied footage a fairly smooth feel and George Feucht’s cinematography decent if not terribly imaginative. The animation effects are good, the score by Jonathan Snipes more than adequate.
In the end, though, while interesting, at nearly two hours the film feels repetitive and, compared to “Room 237,” rather shallow. But perhaps that’s inevitable in dealing with an idea in which everything is slippery and ephemeral, as well as inescapable. After all, even belief in it must be something dictated to you by the matrix., so it must be as much a part of simulated reality as anything else.