Rodney Ascher’s new documentary A Glitch in the Matrix opens, as so many nonfiction films do, with an interview subject getting settled in their camera set-up. In this instance, a guy named Paul Gude is Skyping in from a setting familiar to anyone who’s spent the last year trapped in video-chats. He’s sitting in what appears to be a bedroom made to double as an office, the fisheyed webcam lens catching some dirty laundry, a shelf full of books and decorative toys, some homemade-looking art on the walls. But the eye is instantly drawn to Gude himself, a hyperreal computer-generated creature with shiny copper skin, warrior armor, a scar stretching from his forehead to his cheek, and a mane of shifting polygons in jewel-tone ruby red making his head look like a 20-sided die. He could be a distant cousin of Lion-O from the Thundercats, and he’s here to tell us that everything we know may be a lie.
Ascher’s body of work pays patient, open-minded attention to eccentrics harboring unusual obsessions, whether that’s with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis (as in his film The Nightmare) or the myriad secrets hiding within Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (as in his breakout Room 237). His latest feature takes an all-angles look at the burgeoning culture of “simulation theory” and its adherents, people who believe that the reality we all take for granted is nothing more than a projection the puny human brain perceives as truth. For such a necessarily mind-bending topic, Ascher embraced animation to an extent previously unseen in his filmography, rendering the experiences recounted as uncanny abstractions in a dreamworld of digital artifice. It wasn’t long before he realized that the same technique could be applied to enliven the otherwise inert footage he’d gotten from his many online one-on-ones. It’s an inspired maneuver, both an apt formal rhyme with the material and, after months of meetings conducted through laptop screens, an unexpected parody of quarantine’s banal isolation.
“It’s a strange coincidence, because we actually started filming these interviews in 2019,” Ascher tells the Guardian over the phone as he awaits his premiere in a virtual Sundance. “I thought doing all this through a digital intermediate was on-theme with these stories. As we interacted with each other, in a way, we were only pixels and colored dots and audio output to one another. It all felt appropriate, and to be frank, it allowed us to save money. The fact that putting these animated avatars into this frame looks like a satire of the Zoom world we’ve been living in for the past 10 months is a weird, fun stroke of luck. These projects have a way of attracting those.”
Though Gude and his enlightened brethren would have us believe that there’s no such thing. Coincidences we accept as quirks of chance are just imperfections in the system we’ve been plugged in to, whatever shape it might take. We could be brains in a vat, receiving electrical stimuli through wires manipulated by scientists, or perhaps we’re nothing more than bytes of data on some intelligent being’s hard drive. Plato posited that we could be shackled in a cave, mistaking the shadows on the wall for the things casting them. From VR video games to pop culture, any number of metaphors speak to the core concept of a dimension that can be seen through by those who know how to look. In the case of the more adventurous psychonauts accepting these figurative ideas as literal fact, some even attempt to control the illusion.
Ascher’s first impression of simulation theory came through the many landmarks of science fiction engaging with it, from key text The Matrix and the writings of Philip K Dick to odd episodes of The Twilight Zone and Lost in Space. It wasn’t until he was out promoting his own film The Nightmare that he learned how pervasive this hypothesis and the community organized around it really were. “One of the guys I spoke to for that film said that he thought what was happening in the midst of his sleep paralysis experience was seeing the code, the ones and zeroes Neo can see,” Ascher recalls. “Immediately, that put it on my radar, and as I started reading everything I could find about it, I noticed it appearing around me more and more – news stories, jokes, tweets, Elon Musk appearances, Rick and Morty. It was everywhere. After a while, I could hardly see anything but that.”
The film-maker put out a call in select corners of the internet for disciples of sim-theory, and discovered a thriving community with complex variety of relationships to their uniting principle. Raised by a pastor, Gude lost touch with God and found a workable alternative in the rational; Alex LeVine (speaking through an emoji-faced automaton with a brain suspended in liquid) thought something had to be afoot after he defied death and probability along with it; Brother Laeo Mystwood (a glowing-eyed Anubis clad in a tuxedo top) “hacked” the seven-day week and the rest of existence soon followed; Jesse Orion (an ogre in a spacesuit) took refuge from a life with little to offer him in a universe beyond this one. The last eyewitness, a man named Joshua Cooke, spoke to Ascher via the phone for reasons later clarified in harrowing fashion. His grim tale plays out sans avatar, taking us through his break from sanity in a ghostly first-person perspective.
“Because his story ends in such a serious, tragic place, I thought it would be too, I don’t know if glib is the word, but it just felt too light for what we were representing,” is how Ascher explains that segment’s alienating, intimate POV. “It was a fairly complicated thing to put together, requiring a 3D model of the real location through a photogrammetry process in order to create a virtual house we could float through in a ghostly way. One thing I liked about that is that although it’s quite striking, it’s full of imperfections and holes where information wasn’t properly digitized. I appreciated that quality, which felt more like a memory visited so many times that it had started to fray around the edges.”
Cooke’s section illustrates the dangers inherent to rejecting one’s surroundings as false. Albeit in less extreme forms, the other testimonies share in an animating narcissism, the inflation of ego behind the reasoning that everyone else is so dull, they must be non-playable characters in a game made just for you. Philosophical questions of subjectivity – the old standby “how do we know what you see as green and what I see as green are the same?” – have traditionally been the purview of smoky dorm rooms, but the discourse has been adopted by a sober demographic more interested in staving off their private dystopia than creating a utopia. “Think about it. Elon Musk is the most capitalistic guy on the planet!” Ascher says. “You can’t dismiss this as college stoners and hippies any more. His willingness to engage did a lot to mainstream the idea.”
A 1977 speech delivered by Philip K Dick in France gives structure to the film, and shows the humble beginnings from which sim-theory first entered the public consciousness. Since then, it’s all spread far wider than a lecture hall in Metz, as growing factions of conspiracy theorists jibe with the inkling that society could be one elaborate sham. The paranoia of the QAnon subculture overlaps with a lot of the credulous cynicism articulated by Ascher’s subjects, a parallel to which he’s not blind. “People see any representation of the world coming from a source they trust, and make big assumptions about reality based on it,” he says. “One of the great crises of the 21st century is how many places we can go to get that information. So many of them don’t correspond with others, leaving us in these dangerous places of disagreement. I’ve heard it said, ‘You’re entitled to your opinions, but not your own facts.’ People can’t even find the same premises to start from.”
A viewer can easily imagine Ascher getting lost in the woods while making his way through production, eventually coming to wonder whether these guys (and they are, not insignificantly, all guys) might be on to something. But he anchors his non-judgmental inquisition with a healthy skepticism. He’s a model of curiosity, able and willing to consider out-there notions and extend compassion to those supporting them, all while remaining firm-footed about his own stances. He knows how to take it all in without being taken in.
“There are two things to say about where my personal journey with simulation theory has ended up,” Ascher says. “Accepting it as a scientific truth, I’m certainly no closer to that, though that’s not the aspect of the movie we spend the most time on. Quantum entanglement and Planck’s constant, all that, trying to prove or debunk. To me, this all seems much more like a question of belief. Simulation theory is a creation myth. As useful and profound as some of them are, they don’t necessarily affect your day-to-day life that much. Believing we live in a computer made by aliens or people in the future doesn’t change the way I raise my kid or pay my bills. I still check my rearview mirror when driving.”