A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

Dir. Rodney Ascher

I refer back to this moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a lot, partly because it’s funny and mostly because it’s useful. Harry has just given an interview to The Quibbler about the return of Voldemort, and it’s selling like hotcakes and creating a fair amount of mail for him at breakfast. Ron and Hermione are opening some with him; Ron gets one that says that he thinks Harry’s very brave and probably right, but the writer also doesn’t want to believe Voldemort’s back. “Blimey, what a waste of parchment,” Ron opines. A Glitch in the Matrix is a textbook waste-of-parchment film. In the first half, the film happily listens to a bunch of anonymous guys express their belief that they live in a simulation or, alternately, that it seems likely that they live in a simulation. The film takes a 1977 Philip K. Dick address as its basis, a talk given to young people in which Dick addresses his belief that he lives in a computer-generated reality. Like Dick, the interviewees—granted some anonymity behind computer-generated avatars which do not entirely flatter them—believe that there’s no such thing as coincidence. They offer hypotheses and follow them up with “if you will.” They talk about formative childhood experiences in which they start getting uncomfortable with the idea of existence. They keep diaristic spreadsheets that make my movie log on Sheets look as uncomplicated and beautiful as a double rainbow. For nearly all of them, The Matrix was an earthshaking event. If you read my opening reference to OOTP and thought “Read another book!” just wait until you hear these guys on how ready they were to be changed in 1999 by Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

The film also talks to Erik Davis, a countercultural scholar and a Philip K. Dick researcher, as well as a philosopher of artificial intelligence named Nick Bostrom. These, linked with some video Ascher appears to have dug up of writer Emily Pothast, stand as the nearest thing the documentary has to voices of reason. Davis and Bostrom are relatively sympathetic to the idea of living in a simulation; in the documentary, only Pothast challenges the link between the belief that one is living in a simulation and that one is a lonely son of a gun. Once she does so, Ascher leads into one of his interviewees wondering something similar. This person had an important experience sitting in church as a child and becoming overwhelmed with the idea that everyone around him was alive and breathing and metabolizing. It was so overwhelming that he ceased believing that they were real. Inside the splendor of the church and with all of these other people he rejected the obvious. On the other hand, the adult him has some qualms. Is it possible that as a person who struggles with social interaction, he muses, I had to come up with a pretty baroque way to cope with the world around me? The guy with the spreadsheet diary understands that it’s possible that he’s looking for patterns and confirming his biases. Every three days something comes up at work, he says. I guess if I were looking for a pattern that showed that my life was part of a simulation, I too could manipulate my mental energy to find that “something happens” every three days at my job. I don’t want to pillory the guy too much, because it’s entirely possible that Ascher went into some detail with him about what “something” signifies and just cut that part, but also…c’mon.

There’s something a little maddening about all of this supposition and so-called evidence that the simulation conspiracists have put together, these people who have clearly been on Reddit for years but who have somehow never come across Occam’s razor during their time on the site, people whose insights are just solipsism (and can even name that possibility!). Ironically, I got a very pre-Internet sense of argumentation from these people, like you couldn’t stop the conversation to do a simple fact-check. So much of this movie is like listening to someone say that Albert Belle or Edgar Martinez won the American League MVP in 1995 and not being able to thrust a Google result in their face and say, “Even if it should have been one of those guys, it was Mo Vaughn.” It is almost unbearable, first because it’s annoying and then because it’s sad, to listen to these people desperately try to justify that there is meaning somewhere in their lives. In much the same way that ancient people and televangelist fans look for the divine, so do these guys look for a power greater than themselves. One of them, who is actively non-religious, even has this highly detailed setup he’s imagined about what the computer looks like. Would he make fun of Granny for envisioning the Pearly Gates?

To be more precise, though, there’s something moderately maddening about Ascher’s presentation of these suppositions and the anemic proof summoned to back it up. For more than half the movie, Ascher seems basically sympathetic to these people, even though no one actually has an argument that’s able to stand up to the slightest scrutiny. The film leaves them a lot of room to just talk for a while; the film is punctuated with clips of Philip K. Dick’s increasingly sweaty confessions of what sound like garden-variety paranoia in front of his audience. Ascher ultimately turns this around a little bit. He begins to show the disbelieving, even sarcastic faces of Dick’s audience. He spends a lot of uninterrupted time with Joshua Cooke’s voiceover of how he killed his parents, complete with a faceless voiceover from Cooke himself. This is a miscalculation. No segment of the film is as long and uninterrupted as the computer-generated, disembodied and body-less chapter in which Cooke blows his parents away. It’s sort of gruesome despite the dearth of blood, and Ascher does get what he wants here. This is a chilling sequence. But it would have been a chilling sequence, perhaps even more frightening, if we just got the audio on its own without this poor representation of Cooke’s warped mind. At the end of that sequence, all we’re watching is the local news, and those people understand how to jack up fear in a way that Ascher doesn’t.

It seems that this is Ascher’s primary concern with simulation theory. If people around us aren’t real—or if we don’t think the people around us are real—then there’s not much need for ethics anymore. It’s a real issue, one that Ascher is smart enough to foreshadow in his interviewees. One guy, who went to Harvard and tells us about it because even when you’re underneath a digital image you have to say you went to Harvard, suggests that there can only be several hundred thousand consciousnesses in the world based on the computer power it’d take to underpin them. It’s a breathtaking statement of arrogance, even for a Harvard man: the “real” population of the earth just happens to include him! But Ascher knows that there is a kind of continuum here. It starts with some of the benign, pitiable stuff on one end: a sensory-deprivation tank experience that blew someone’s mind, a guy who struggled from early childhood to relate to others. And on the other end is the Joshua Cooke experience, someone who wore out his VHS of The Matrix, put on a trenchcoat, and killed his folks while his sister was still on the telephone. In the middle, somewhere, is that guy who can dehumanize billions of people with breathtaking ease.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a pretty fun documentary. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine getting buzzy after a big festival, which more or less happened to it at Sundance 2021, and you have to give credit to Ascher for trying to make this more than a podcast. There are some visual flourishes in the imaginations of the men—that no women ever stand up in favor of simulation theory in this documentary is the most damning piece of evidence against it—and I actually like the effect of the digital renderings of the interviewees. I have a harder time seeing value in a documentary like this, where the premise of its talking heads is somewhere between laughable and immaterial. A Glitch in the Matrix doesn’t have much value beyond some blasé “just asking questions” approach. As a wise person once said: ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

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