Our grip on reality can be tenuous at the best of times, but the last few years have been especially challenging in that regard, with all manner of unlikely occurrences which could make a person feel as though the universe is spinning off its axis. Nobody would likely blame you for feeling as if things are slightly off-kilter, and questioning the things which are going on around you; such is the curse of living in interesting times, it seems.
For a long time, the idea has persisted that what we believe to be ‘reality’ is in fact something of an illusion; this is by no means a modern phenomenon, and can be traced as a tenet of philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks or the Aztecs; even Descartes used the notion. However, the idea began to gain some traction in our modern era with the 1999 release of The Matrix, the Wachowskis’ seminal work, presenting a world where humanity had been subjugated, and was living in a constructed artificial reality.
Off the back of the movie, and one scene in particular where the concept of déjà vu is addressed, the phrase ‘a glitch in the matrix’ has become shorthand to describe those times when people find themselves confronted with inexplicable events, where no rational explanation can seemingly be provided in response. This is where filmmaker Rodney Ascher’s feature documentary, A Glitch In The Matrix, takes its cue, hoping to offer a deeper look at the phenomena, and the ways in which The Matrix has become part of popular culture.
In fact, pop culture plays a large part in Ascher’s storytelling style, as he judiciously uses clips from Hollywood movies to help illustrate the points being discussed; a very impressive array of movies ends up being utilised, from The Wizard Of Oz to Total Recall, and Blade Runner to A Scanner Darkly; in fact, Philip K. Dick features heavily throughout, not merely in terms of motion pictures inspired by him, or based on his writings, but also in the use of archive clips of Dick himself, giving a talk in 1977 where he relates his own experiences of altered perceptions of reality.
Indeed, these excerpts of Dick prove to be some of the most fascinating parts of A Glitch In The Matrix, and makes you wish that this was actually a feature solely about him, as it appears that he has a story which needs to be told. Perhaps Ascher would have been better making that his focus, as the remainder of the feature remains frustratingly patchy and inconsistent. Anyone familiar with his earlier piece Room 237 – a forensic dissection of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – will likely be coming into this with raised expectations.
Sadly, Ascher misses the mark by some distance here, as A Glitch In The Matrix – while given an internal structure or framework – lacks focus or clarity, focusing on the wrong things for much too long, while skipping over other aspects of simulation theory which cry out for more attention, such as the ‘Mandela Effect’ of having shared false memories or delusions. Granted, he does have people from academia, as well as literary backgrounds, to put forward their thoughts and hypotheses, including philosopher Nick Bostrom, with his work being central to recent simulation theory.
However, far too much time is given to three ‘talking heads’, all of whom relate their experiences of seemingly lifting the veil on ‘reality’, yet give very little in the way of substance to the debate. What helps fatally undermine the contributions they make is the manner in which Ascher presents them, by making an artistic choice to have all of them represented on screen as digital avatars throughout; while it is possible to understand how it ties into the core theory of people being simulacra, it feels a fundamentally flawed decision, and ends up weakening the final product.
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One could charitably say that each of the trio here has their own issues coping with reality, but by removing the human element from proceedings – being able to see their faces, their eyes, their reactions – for ourselves, it adds an extra unnecessary layer of unreality, and removes the viewer one step further from them. This distance or remoteness makes it harder to relate to them, and weakens any credibility in their accounts of what they have felt or claim to have been through and, rather than a sympathetic portrayal, ends up making them sound delusional.
Strangely, one of the most compelling testimonies actually comes from somebody whose full interview was conducted solely over the telephone, remaining unseen at all times, yet their tragic story is more engaging and human than the tales related by any of the three avatars. It gives us a shocking and heartbreaking look at the cost of allowing such fantasies to take hold unchecked, and feeds into the long-held argument that TV, movies and video games can be a bad influence with all of their violent imagery.
While fitting in with the Matrix-related central narrative of the documentary, it feels as though a separate piece needs to be made, challenging widely-held views with regard to media influence, and addressing the failure of the various systems – from lack of gun control, to the inadequate mental health support network – which lead to such tragedies. As such, the section casts rather a long, dark shadow over the remainder of the film, and provides a chilling reminder of the tragedies which unfold with an all-too familiar regularity.
At one point, Philip K. Dick says that he feels philosophy and religion are inextricably linked to any discussions of the kind of subject matter relating to alternate or simulated realities; it seems ironic, then, that one of the avatars talks about how society is becoming more secularised, yet – without a hint of irony or self-reflection – has subscribed to a belief system in the simulation theory which is predicated solely upon there being a higher power or a controlling intelligence behind our reality. Religion is dead; long live religion.
Where it becomes even more disturbing is the way in which the avatar contributors openly talk in terms of feeling that free will is an illusion, and a divorcement from social norms and consequences. As such, it veers into dangerous territory, as there is a clearer suggestion that simulation theory acts as a form of potential charter for sociopathy or psychopathy. It once again frustrates that there is no true pushback on this, and these views are presented so matter-of-factly, where an ‘all sides’ neutral approach proves so risky.
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A lack of consistent academic rigour, as well as an absence of challenges being made where it would seem appropriate to do so, means that far too much of the run time is given over to uncritically presenting a jumble of conspiracy theories, in a way which makes the documentary degenerate into one of those QAnon-type YouTube videos at certain points. Where virtual avatars are being given as much – if not more – of a soapbox as philosophers, lecturers, etc., it does tend to make one feel the project is critically compromised, and so far less worthy as a consequence.
While A Glitch In The Matrix has undoubtedly set out to be thought-provoking, it has ultimately managed to do so in perhaps quite a substantially different manner to what was actually intended. If there is a worthwhile piece to be made about this subject matter, A Glitch In The Matrix sadly is not it. Rodney Ascher has projected himself here as somewhat of a bargain basement Adam Curtis, which is frustrating when you know that he is capable of doing better; the DVD extra of a Sundance Festival Zoom discussion points you to that same conclusion.
Where A Glitch In The Matrix is concerned then, for once, we would all be better off taking the Blue Pill.
A Glitch In The Matrix is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, from Dogwoof.