Sundance 2021: A Glitch in the Matrix, by David Bax
It’s a comment both on the singularity of director Rodney Ascher’s vision and on the singularly weird moment in history in which his new film, A Glitch in the Matrix, has emerged to note that it’s unclear how much of the documentary takes the shape it does because it’s germane to the subject matter or because of the now commonplace logistics of health and safety concerns. Ascher (who is, in the interest of full disclosure, a repeat guest and friend of Battleship Pretension) conducts his interviews over internet video connections, with many interviewees appearing not as themselves but as digital avatars, a less disorienting sight than it would have been a year ago before we became accustomed to our coworkers and their ever-changing Zoom backgrounds.
All of this very normal stuff is a part of Ascher’s questions about the nature of normalcy itself. Specifically, A Glitch in the Matrix examines what’s known as “simulation theory,” the idea that we and the world we’re living in are not a part of reality–at least as we think of it–but are rather a massive computer simulation built by some other, more advanced race of beings.
One of Ascher’s trademark skills is the ability to transform his documentaries to fit the form of what his subjects are discussing. Just as 2015’s The Nightmare, his truly frightening film about sleep paralysis, took on the aesthetic of a horror film, A Glitch in the Matrix features dramatizations (for lack of a better word) and other bits of example-making that unfold in digitally fabricated worlds, from the bright, cheery, logical right-angle realm of Minecraft to the post-human, misshapen near-reality of Google Earth.
A Glitch in the Matrix works as a compelling and potentially troubling companion piece to Ascher’s first feature length documentary, 2012’s Room 237, about conspiracy theories related to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As fascinating and sympathetic as I found the ideas and interviewees in that film, I never thought the actual theories amounted to much more than The Number 23-type obsessions with assigning meaning where none exists. Yet I almost immediately found the men and women documented in A Glitch in the Matrix far more credible. Are they? Or is it me? Have I, by chance, changed over the years–been changed, in fact, by these very movies–and would I benefit from returning to Room 237 and continuing the conversation between the two films?
What’s even more disturbing about simulation theory, though, is the invitation it offers to solipsism. This is where the film becomes surprisingly open to the idea of religion, reimaging its shape, perhaps, but underlining its purpose. Meaning exists even if it doesn’t look the way we may have assumed it does. Giving up on that is easy but not helpful, like dropping the controller. A Glitch in the Matrix makes the case that not being able to tell the difference between life and a videogame doesn’t mean life isn’t real. It means that the videogame is.