A few days ago, while remotely introducing his movie A Glitch in the Matrix at the at-home Sundance Film Festival, director Rodney Ascher noted, with what I’m pretty sure was a chuckle, that “a film about virtual life, made virtually, is now premiering the same way.” It was, indeed, weirdly apropos: Ascher’s film focuses on the belief — fervently held by some — that our world is just a computer simulation à la The Matrix. Matching ethos and aesthetics, his interviews were all done via computer, with his subjects usually presenting themselves as fanciful, video-game-style avatars. Aside from pre-existing film and news clips (of which there are admittedly many), the movie doesn’t seem to have any “real life” footage. When a home is shown, it’s a digital 3-D walk-through; when we see an exterior, it’s from Google Street View. One suspects there was never any physical pointing of cameras, no arranging of big clunky lights, maybe not even anyone calling “Action!” And so, ultimately, no typical screening: No physical festival audience huddled into seats, no big screen, no director in duck boots and fleece awkwardly holding a mic, no dimming of the lights. The movie might have been as much an illusion as (allegedly) life itself.
Luckily for us, both life and the movie are real, and A Glitch in the Matrix, for all its digital constraints, is deliriously alive and expansive as well as riveting. It’s stuffed with ideas and stories, and it builds — amid its crowded latticework of potentially mind-melting theories — toward the kind of emotional conclusion one would not expect from a movie so immersed in abstract thought. It’s also just plain creepy: Ascher structures his journey around footage of a 1977 lecture by visionary sci-fi author and legendary paranoiac Philip K. Dick, who declares to an audience in Metz, France, that we are living in a computer-programmed reality, one of many. (“If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others,” Dick asides.) Buttoned-down and tense, his eyes occasionally darting around even as he reads from a prepared text, the author has the aura of both a seer and a madman. What he’s saying may be nuts, but his laser-beam seriousness is compelling; as with a cult leader, you’re afraid to doubt him.
Less intimidating are the chatty interviews Ascher conducts with various individuals who discuss their own journeys toward simulation theory. Paul Gude, digitally costumed in some kind of shimmering, bejeweled Lion-O getup, talks about how, while growing up in a sparsely populated town in Illinois, he came to see the people around him as fake and the buildings as empty Western-movie-style façades. Later, he describes how he was freaked out during church services when he realized that all the singing humans around him were basically just making sounds through “meat flaps” inside their bodies. Brother Læo Mystwood, his avatar a kind of pink-bow-tied robo-Anubis, explains that he mapped out the events in his life and discovered that everything happens according to a pattern — things having to do with his job happen on certain days, things having to do with family on other days, etc. Later he recalls how his experience in a sensory-deprivation tank made him realize his body is an illusion. Alex LeVine, in a neon shaman outfit with what looks to be a brain floating inside his mask, describes a revelatory incident in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when he got off easy after a drunk-driving joyride and a face-off with corrupt local cops and became convinced the world was watching out for him.
Ascher’s interview subjects (who include artists, scientists, and researchers) are hyperintelligent, articulate, and entertaining, even though the temptation is great to sit there and poke holes in their so-called evidence. (Yes, many children go through a period of thinking everyone around them is an impostor or a robot; it’s just that the rest of us grow up. Yes, humans are animals made of meat, but we use our meat bodies and meat faces and meat brains and meat mouths to think and dream and do beautiful things sometimes. And yes, the people who are lucky enough to survive horrific drunk-driving accidents and face-offs with cops get to reflect on them and find God or whatever, while the ones who don’t survive are, sadly, not around to offer up their theories.) But the tenor of the film isn’t one of doubt or ridicule. These people’s stories aren’t that bizarre or surreal; they are, by and large, universal and relatable. We’re all seeing and feeling the same things, but they process them in different ways.
Some, in horrific ways: In the second half of the film, Ascher includes an interview with Joshua Cooke, a young Virginia man who became so obsessed with The Matrix and the belief that his world was a simulation that he murdered his parents right after delivering Neo’s final speech from that film into their house phone. (Cooke doesn’t get an avatar; he’s in prison.) As another interview subject suggests, even if you’ve decided reality is a simulation, you still need to live through it and get on with your day. Anything else would lead to madness.
Ascher always seems to find a moving way out of these dense cognitive mazes. He directed 2014’s Room 237, which charts a variety of individuals’ sometimes extreme readings of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. That documentary, even as it spins deeper and deeper into the often twisted conspiracy theories its subjects indulge in, is ultimately about something far simpler and more sincere: movie love and the ways (good and bad) in which one can become totally obsessed with a work of art. The director finds people who overthink things and then finds cinematic ways to overthink along with them — but always with an eye to the bigger picture, always with an eye to why any of this might matter to the rest of us. And so A Glitch in the Matrix becomes not about whether we’re living in a simulation but about the many understandable reasons someone may think this. In effect, it winds up being about the mysteries of the human experience. The world is fucking crazy, dude. Some people respond to it with religion, others by assuming we are controlled by a giant video game from another dimension. Anybody who claims to know for sure is either lying or insane. All we do know is that, in the end, we’re still a bunch of meat flaps, virtual or not, and we’ve got a lot of flapping to do.
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