'A Glitch in the Matrix' Turns Documentary on Its Head

Rodney Ascher's heady film exploring simulation theory might make you wonder if any documentary subjects are truly real.

A Glitch in the Matrix
Magnolia Pictures

For a solipsistic individual, documentary cinema can be a necessary reminder that we’re not alone in the universe. I realized this while watching A Glitch in the Matrix, a documentary feature that might be better described as an anti-documentary. Rodney Ascher, the director of Room 237 and The Nightmare, again presents enlightening yet inconsequential testimonials from seemingly random individuals, this time on the topic of simulation theory, or the idea that we’re living in a constructed reality, a la video games and the world of The Matrix.

Like Room 237, it gives you a lot to think about on a deeper level than what’s being said within. You’re not expected to learn about simulation theory so much as hear from people who believe in it, and you’re likely to simultaneously consider your own existential thoughts — as I did with my relationship with documentary films being, in part, a way to trust that all kinds of other people (which some of the interviewees here would describe as real NPCs, or non-player characters) have their own lives and stories. And like with The Nightmare, you’re likely to come away with more of a sensation rather than a knowledge of the film’s subject matter.

Ironically, this particular documentary doesn’t let you get to know its participants as real people. Most of the interviewed individuals are hidden behind custom avatars created for the film (by artists Chris Burnham and Maksim Solonovich) while another is only heard and never seen. That’s typical for Ascher, whose interviews for Room 237 were all done over the phone. He’s not a fan of traditional talking-head interviews. At times, it’s fitting, in all of his films, to exclude such a personal connection between viewer and interview subject, as it allows for more skepticism, but it’s also sometimes a problem for the same reason.

Ascher’s films are more concerned with affecting our minds than our hearts. We’re not meant to empathize with the people in A Glitch in the Matrix or even get to know them as people. For all we know, those characters on-screen hidden behind computer-animated representations are just bots, similar to the seemingly artificial digital-voiced narrator of the film. If you’re a believer in simulation theory, you’re probably not accepting them as “real” people anyway. They’re just tools of the simulation or, at the very least, agents from outside of the simulation guiding your experience.

For me, as someone who has been interested in solipsism my whole life but has believed in the biological and corporeal world more and more as I get older and especially as I’ve had a family (or, perhaps, I have just decided to enjoy the steak, as it were), this documentary only made me more accepting of the opposite of what’s proposed therein. Just as the overwhelming and increasingly outlandish discussions of the meaning of The Shining found in Room 237 make me even more cynical about conspiracy theories and film analysis, here I find myself reminded that sci-fi fodder philosophies are fun to think about but can sound ridiculous when taken too seriously.

Or scary. One of the more interesting rabbit holes that A Glitch in the Matrix takes us down is quite relevant in these times of isolation. Solipsistic ideas are both lonely and brought about by loneliness and seclusion, which is a concerning psychological matter during the COVID-19 pandemic and the call for self-quarantining. Not everyone is able to experience lockdown with family members or some other safe community. Their interactions with other people are either through digital barriers like video calls and online gaming and the media or with mundane analog persons like supermarket checkout workers. Such remote, segregated living can lead to a lack of care and empathy for others and, worst-case scenario, find them to be disposable.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a perfect midnight movie (the program in which it premiered at Sundance) because it does eventually become something of a horror movie but is also the sort of trippy feature, with its heady metaphysical subject matter combined with its surreal visuals, that is going to welcome drug-fueled viewings.

But it will also give you a hangover for which you’ll want an antidote in the form of just about any other documentary with real people invested in the real world. The film I happened to watch afterward was Frank Oz’s In & Of Itself, which climaxes with an overwhelming display of human emotion from tons of individuals, albeit one heavily manipulated by magical showman Derek DelGaudio, celebrating their individuality and authenticity.

I also soon afterward screened the fellow Sundance documentary Searchers, which is a simple yet captivating look at people using dating apps and inquiring about their experiences. It’s a perfect antidote to A Glitch in the Matrix because it presents real, honest individuals as they’re attempting to find some sort of genuine connection in these times of isolation, ironically with the help of algorithmic computer programs.

I’ve thought about A Glitch in the Matrix and simulation theory a lot less since watching the film than I expected to, going into it, and on the one hand, that’s disappointing. On the other hand, maybe its true worth is the fact that it’s doing the opposite of what a documentary is theoretically supposed to do. The film has given me a greater appreciation for the evidence that we’re not all living in a computer simulation, whether it’s in the recognition of and gratitude for physical interaction with family and friends or in the respect and enjoyment of the people on screen in most other nonfiction films.

Of course, maybe that’s just what our computer overlords want, for me to forget about the possibility that I’m a slave in their system.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.