Review — ‘A Glitch in the Matrix’

Rodney Ascher’s vivid, cinematic documentary is the ultimate conspiracy theory must-watch for ‘Living in a Simulation’ newbies

you know nothing of simulation theory, Rodney Ascher’s journey “down the rabbit hole of science, philosophy, and conspiracy theory” might just fire up your CPU. If your exploration of the concept has already gone beyond the cursory, then I don’t think A Glitch in the Matrix will fall on the right bandwidth for you.

In his newest documentary, Ascher takes a commendable shot at probing the fascinating idea that we’re living not in reality but in a computer simulation — an idea that has existed in one form or another since Plato’s Cave Allegory but didn’t find a proper home in the mainstream until The Matrix. And it’s also an idea that doesn’t seem completely outrageous to me.

Who knows the name of the game in which we might be stuck — one played by some advanced civilization or even a superhuman artificial intelligence. But the name of Ascher’s game here is definitely something along the lines of Objectivity: Be Gone. Here, we see more of the same subjectivity we’ve come to expect of the director since his Room 237 voyage into theories around Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining.

Some critics loved Room 237, and it’s perhaps the same people awarding A Glitch in the Matrix better scores than it may deserve. Though, one person’s floppy-disk is another’s treasure, right? For me, telling only one side of the story is a major bug in the film’s operating system — a glitch in its own matrix, if you will. Its superficiality may leave viewers with the sense that Ascher desperately needed to right-click for a more comprehensive drop-down menu of insights.

I mostly came for Philosopher and FHI Director Nick Bostrom. In 2003, he was the first expert to offer an evidence-based case for our potential Sims-adjacent reality, and I’ve long respected his views on both this subject and others around AI. Even if sparser than I’d wished, Bostrom’s commentary on simulation theory certainly doesn’t disappoint.

That said, his appreciation of the topic is the most credible aspect of the investigation, which is mostly reliant upon the uncorroborated word of quirky avatars, sitting at home in gaming chairs, sharing tall (but not totally unrelatable) tales inspired by heady daydreams and fantastic coincidence. However, I will confess those avatars, alongside real interviewees with faces, are a smart and often witty crowd who do articulate their theories eloquently and do amuse us into the bargain.

One gruesome story sticks out, and it comes from within not the digital walls supposedly confining us but real-life(?) prison walls. I’ll let you find out for yourself where a fixation on The Matrix can lead — and it’s not just being denied an avatar by prison guards.

Aside from Bostrom’s absorbing contribution, an expansive latticework of Ascher’s creative choices help take this vibrant yet surface-level documentary from Philip K. Dick’s 1977 alternate-digital-reality claims to its unexpectedly affecting conclusion and fire-lit end credits à la Plato.

His choices include video-game clips, archival film and news footage, and creepy yet compelling animations — one involves a bizarre discussion about the “meat flaps” humans use to sing and talk, reminiscent of Terry Bisson’s short story They’re Made out of Meat.

I’d like to say Ascher’s decision to interview all his talking heads using virtual communications software works to his advantage too. I’d be telling a tall tale myself though! It’s incredibly fitting for both the topic at hand and the way we’re interacting with one another in these remote Covid times and does lend strength to a documentary about a hypothesised digital existence. But low-res video-quality generally weakens the effect — not that the director could really do anything about this. Still, sad-face emoji!

Ultimately, if you’re a technologist or futurist, I’d guess you’ll want more out of A Glitch in the Matrix. Though keeping simulation theory accessible to a wider range of viewers is a smart move. It might alienate a handful of people, but I guess that’s a small price to pay when it looks like none of us is real anyway (wink). And if Ascher focused on this, he’d lose the plot in the same way we might by obsessing over our potentially simulated reali…BINARY BINARY.

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

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