A Glitch In The Matrix


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A Glitch In The Matrix
"More interested in illustration than in analysis." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Director Rodney Ascher has long been interested in what might be called backwater phenomenon - like some of the edgier explanations for sleep paralysis in The Nightmare - or the sort of fringe theories that make people tick and that formed the hub of Room 237, which considered some fans' fascination with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

For his latest documentary - which had its world premiere at Sundance - science-fiction luminary Philip K Dick provides the springboard for a dive into the rabbit hole of simulation theory. Simply put - although it is given various embellishments here - it is the idea that, not unlike Keanu Reeves' Neo in The Matrix, we are all part of a manufactured, virtual world, complete with "non-player characters". If you prefer an older touchstone, think of all those fake storefronts in Blazing Saddles, which like The Matrix is one of many films referenced in the catalogue of clips shown here.

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Dick, whose work, including We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (later adapted into Total Recall) and The Man In The High Castle, often hinged on ideas of 'false' or manipulated reality, is seen in excerpts from a 1970s lecture on simulation theory. Alongside this, modern-day proponents of the idea - appropriately appearing as computer-generated avatars - talk about how they came to share the belief, while others offer some limited analysis of why this might appeal and how it is part of a fine tradition stretching back to Plato's allegory of the cave.

Certainly, Ascher ably articulates how the idea has permeated the modern world, assembling a raft of clips - from Starship Troopers through to Minority Report and games like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto - to show how often it is played with on our various screens. However, he is more interested in illustration than in analysis, which leads to a lack of balance.

Ascher is studiously non-judgemental but he starts to nudge at the idea that believing that nothing is real could generate real world problems - later stages of the film see Joshua Cooke, who shot his family, talk about his Matrix obsession - but, and this is no way to take away from Cooke's mental health issues, it feels like an easy reach with little underpinning beyond first-person recollection. Plus, let's not forget that movie history loves a bit of Moral Panic. The documentarian does a solid job of laying out the theory and the film will also prove of interest to Dick fans, who want to see him wrestle a bit with the concept, but it feels very light in terms of its scientific or psychological element. It's also worth noting that this appears to be a very male-dominated realm - something that isn't touched upon, sadly - with very few female voices included and it also feels culturally narrow in its confinement to the US.

Although offering interesting moments regarding the way people can come round to Dick's way of thinking and never less than watchable, like those avatars, it could do with more meat on its bones.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2021
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Are we living in a simulation?
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Director: Rodney Ascher

Year: 2021

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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