The Creepy New Doc 'A Glitch in The Matrix' Dares to Ask: Are We Living in a Simulation?

Rodney Ascher's new documentary, which premiered at Sundance and is now out on VOD, considers the reality of simulation theory.

a glitch in the matrix
Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

Director Rodney Ascher was attending a VR party, using an Oculus headset, at this year's largely virtual Sundance Film Festival when he was asked a question about his new documentary that he found "pretty ridiculous," given the context. His latest mind-blower, A Glitch in the Matrix that's out in theaters and on VOD February 5, is an exploration of simulation theory, the notion that we are living in a virtual world. In addition to talking to experts and delving into the pop culture that reflects this viewpoint, Ascher speaks with subjects who subscribe to this belief. Instead of depicting their faces, Ascher worked with comic book artist Chris Burnham to design avatars for them, so they appear on screen as bulbous creatures and mechanical beings. A critic asked: Why did he chose to depict the talking heads in this form?

"He was a two and a half foot space alien with unblinking eyes, and I was a mummy," Ascher recalls. Of course, there was a creative reason for the decision: It allowed Ascher to put his subjects into reenactments without casting other humans. But so many people, whether you engage with simulation theory or not, lives at least somewhat virtually these days. "It's kind of playing with the contrast of reality and unreality in digital communications," Ascher says. Eventually, when watching the film, you start to forget that these are outlandish avatars, the same way you may start to recognize people by their Bitmoji or Memoji saved in your phone. 

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He uses certain pieces of culture (pop and otherwise) as guideposts throughout the film. One is a speech that the sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick—responsible for the likes of Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle—gave in 1977 outlining his belief in the existence of computer-programmed reality. Another is Plato's allegory of the cave. Elon Musk's affirmation of simulation theory is referenced. And, of course, there's The Matrix.

Despite the title, Ascher was not interested in making a Room 237 but for The Matrix. "I was mostly looking for ways The Matrix introduced people's ideas about simulation theory more than their experience of it as a film," he says. Rather than going through Neo's journey, he let his interviewees pick out what spoke to them about the story. One, for instance, connects more to The Animatrix rather than the original trilogy. 

The Wachowskis' film is a tether to A Glitch in the Matrix's most disturbing sequence: An interview with Joshua Cooke, whose murder of his parents in 2003 is an example of "The Matrix defense," which would rule the defendant insane due to his notion that The Matrix was, in fact, real. (Cooke ended up pleading guilty.) Cooke describes both his attraction to The Matrix and, in detail, the night in which he committed his crimes. While initially Ascher considered making Cooke one of the avatars, the story was so "harrowing" that he felt it would be in bad taste. So instead, Ascher at his team recreated Cooke's home using photogrammetry software.

"The camera floats through as if it's his eyes, but there are no humans in it," Ascher explains. "It's just almost looking at the house after this has happened. Maybe it was trying to suggest what it was like for him to reflect back on this again and again on this. Part of the photogrammetry process is imperfect, so we loved the errors and the glitches in it." 

a glitch in the matrix, photogrammetry
Magnolia Pictures

Ascher always had The Matrix defense on what he describes as his "big whiteboard of topics within simulation theory" he wanted to cover, but he was surprised how many of the people he spoke with wanted to bring up the ethics of the topic. Cooke's story throws those discussions into relief. "At a certain point, talking about simulation theory can be navel-gazing, pie in the sky, stoner, dorm room philosophizing," Ascher explains. "So the idea of, in a very raw and real and human way, visualizing what the real stakes are of that disconnect from reality, especially since it's especially apparent these days, it's probably always happening, that thinking of some people as less than others or disagreeing about basic facts has led to all sort of horrors and violence and catastrophe—maybe Joshua's story can sort of prompt conversations or point out toward others."

Ascher considers A Glitch in the Matrix the third installment in a trilogy about people trying to understand unsolvable mysteries. It began with Room 237—his 2012 deep dive into The Shining conspiracy theories—and continued with 2015's The Nightmare, about those who suffer from sleep paralysis. "The mystery of 237 is, 'What is a work of art? What does a movie mean?' [That goes] to, 'What happens in this state of consciousness?' in The Nightmare and 'Is the supernatural real? And these things people see, do they come from inside or outside?' This is going one step further into the world."  

There are places A Glitch in the Matrix doesn't go. For instance, it doesn't discuss how simulation theory relates to dangerous current conspiracy theories in politics, though Ascher knows that's relevant, nor does it go into the idea of "red pilling." Ascher is happy for the movie to prompt even deeper discussions. He's opening up a digital wormhole, and hoping the audience will get sucked in with him.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.