The Surprising Appeal of Believing You’re Living in ‘The Matrix’

Rodney Ascher doesn’t need to take the red pill to explore how deep the rabbit hole goes. The documentary director has made a career out of burrowing into the dark recesses of these modern times. His debut feature, 2013’s Room 237, looked at viewers who promote alternate readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, while The Nightmare from 2015 delivered an unnerving look at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. A Glitch in the Matrix, his latest project, might be his strangest excavation yet. In it, Ascher delves into the concept of simulation theory—and the people who believe, according to its tenets, that they live in an artificial reality.

The film’s title is of course a reference to the Wachowskis’ revolutionary film from 1999. Over the years it has increasingly become the go-to way to explain, and in some cases promote, the idea that we are living inside a computer-generated, simulated reality. Which is to say that everyone on the planet—me, you, your parents, the checkout person at Trader Joe’s, Keanu Reeves—are nothing more than pixels generated by an unknown source for unknown reasons. Once considered just a subject for science fiction and stoned musings, simulation theory is now examined with increased seriousness as a philosophical and a scientific concept. In recent years, individuals who have spoken publicly about the high probability that we don’t live inside the “base” reality include Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Though the Wachowskis’ film plays a crucial part in A Glitch in the Matrix, the documentary explains that many of the ideas within it have been around for much longer. Glitch’s throughline is a lecture that the prolific author Philip K. Dick gave in 1977 to a confused audience in Metz, France, where he outed himself as a believer in simulation theory, and Ascher’s film goes back even farther to sources like Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Loaded with knotty beliefs and brain-bending notions, Glitch offers its own heavy levels of mindfuckery. It’s told in Ascher’s unique style, influenced by everything from YouTube conspiracy videos and World of Warcraft avatars to sample-heavy ‘80s electronic music. After its premiere this past weekend at 2021’s all-virtual Sundance Film Festival, A Glitch in the Matrix will be available in select theaters and on demand this Friday, February 5. Ascher spoke to GQ about how simulation theory can make you feel better about how crappy the world is, the allure of unsolvable mysteries, and the dangers in believing that everyone around you is a computer program.

How much of your life do you live online?

Too much, especially this last year since the shutdown. Most of my conversations are with glowing pixels on a glass screen.

How about in virtual worlds?

I watch my son play. I play a little bit. We actually just got an Oculus because there’s going to be a lot of VR stuff at Sundance and I’m obsessed with Beat Saber and Superhot. But they’re giving me strange headaches. I almost feel like I’m growing that tumor from Videodrome.

How does this film tie into the other topics you’ve explored in your documentaries?

They’re all about people struggling to understand mysteries, and usually unsolvable mysteries. If Room 237 is about people trying to understand a puzzling piece of art, and The Nightmare is about folks trying to understand what happens to them during this very strange state of consciousness, then this one pulls out even wider. The lens zooms out to questions of the very nature of reality itself. In hindsight it makes it feel like this was a very premeditated and logical progression, but things just sort of happened that way.

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