“A Glitch in the Matrix,” a new documentary now available to rent or buy on the Apple TV app and other VOD platforms, is a mind-boggling collision of religion, philosophy, conspiracy theory and science fiction. Taking its lead from a 1977 speech by “Total Recall” author Philip K. Dick, it’s a study in reality; what’s real and, more importantly, what’s not. Is life what we experience or is it all an elaborate computer simulation? “People claim to remember past lives,” Dick said in the speech. “I claim to remember a very different present life.”
The simulation theory at the heart of the film is an unprovable hypothesis that boils down to the idea that everything, the Earth and its occupants, might be a computer simulation. It’s not a new idea. In the seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes said, “It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false.”
How do people know they’re in a simulation? That’s the glitch, like in the Keanu Reeves film “The Matrix” where an anomaly, something that has no logical explanation, happens. In the doc someone tells a story of setting simple goals, like seeing an orange fish in the next ten minutes. Sure enough, on a street he’s never been down before he spies a giant orange neon fish sign.
Coincidence or a glitch?
Science fiction writers like Dick have played with the idea for decades, but director Rodney Ascher takes the idea out of the realm of sci fi, interviewing a series of people, often disguised by digital avatars, to discuss whether simulation theory has merit or if it is a coping mechanism that easier way to deal with the complexity of human existence.
Ascher explores the real-world consequences of this otherworldly theory with a long, chilling passage narrated by Josh Cooke, a 19-year-old who dressed in a long black trench coat, like Reeves’s character Neo, and believed he lived inside the Matrix. With a gun modelled on the one used in the film he shot his father and mother before calling the police. It’s an effective sequence that brings the story to life, over Cooke’s monotone retelling, with Matrix-inspired graphics. Cooke’s story also cuts through the doc’s occasionally pedantic tone.
There are, of course, no answers in “A Glitch in the Matrix,” just lots of thought-provoking questions.
Whether we live in a counterfeit world or not, the ideas presented here reflect existential quandaries people have mulled over for centuries, but here they have a twenty-first century twist. Like all other speculation regarding our existence, no one is going have any answers until they’re dead. What happens then? According to one of the doc’s avatars, “It’s possible that after you die, you wake up in an arcade in the year 3000, put another quarter in and do another life on earth in the year 2019.” It’s a new wrinkle on an old question that even Neo can’t answer.