If you’ve heard of simulation theory — the idea that our entire universe could be running inside of some extra-dimensional computer — there’s a good chance you encountered it from a high-profile believer like Elon Musk. But how would an average person, someone whose clout doesn’t depend on provocative dorm room philosophizing, embrace it? How would the idea that the world isn’t “real” define how they interact with other people? If you’re even somewhat intrigued by exploring the subculture, you’ll appreciate A Glitch in the Matrix, Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary about uniquely obsessive personalities.
And if you’re wondering, no, the film doesn’t unlock any secrets about simulation theory. Even Ascher tells us he has no clue if it’s true or not. Instead, his interest is less in the idea itself but in why people believe it. His award-winning 2012 documentary Room 237 was about the wild fan theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. His follow-up, The Nightmare, explored sleep paralysis and how it often constructs terrifying scenarios out of thin air. It’s easy to draw a line from those films to people who distrust the very fabric of reality.
If the title wasn’t enough of a sign, A Glitch in the Matrix feels like an introduction to simulation theory instead of a rigorous discussion. The Matrix, after all, introduced the concept of simulated reality to an entire generation of emo teenagers (myself, included) in 1999. But what it may lack in-depth, it makes up for in sheer watchability.
It’s simultaneously hilarious, and a bit sad to hear seemingly serious adults — represented as cartoonish CG avatars — reject the idea of there being 7-billion individual consciousnesses on Earth. Why? Because there’s no way, our universe simulator has enough processing power to handle that. The more logical explanation, of course, is that the machine is just recycling a couple hundred thousand personalities, the way an Assassin’s Creed game creates its large crowds by reusing AI code.
Too often, I wished Ascher would push his subjects a bit more to test the limits of their beliefs. But I suppose that’s like trying to argue the shape of the planet with a Flat Earther. One subject managed to leave the site of a drunken car crash in Mexico without a severe injury or being arrested. He thought the simulation was just working out a successful narrative for him, rather than dumb luck and his American privilege in action. After surviving something like that, how can we convince him otherwise? One person’s miracle is another’s optimal simulation path.