What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real? To tackle this mind-bending idea, acclaimed filmmaker Rodney Ascher (Room 237) uses a noted speech from Philip K. Dick to dive down the rabbit hole of science, philosophy, and conspiracy theory. Leaving no stone unturned in exploring the unprovable, the film uses contemporary cultural touchstones like The Matrix, interviews with real people shrouded in digital avatars, and a wide array of voices, expert and amateur alike. If simulation theory is not science fiction but fact, and life is a video game being played by some unknowable entity, then who are we, really? A Glitch In The Matrix attempts to find out.
We spoke to Rodney Ascher about how the documentary started off an an idea for a Twilight Zone anthology and ended in discussing a real life murder case…
How would you describe simulation theory in A Glitch In The Matrix?
The theory is basically the idea that we are living in something like The Matrix. That the world is some digitally created artificial world inside of a computer or computer-like device out there someplace. Strictly speaking, I think this movie is more about the way this theory affects people, gets under their skin, and if they really start to believe it, what kind of effect it can have on their life?
Most of the people that it focuses on are regular, everyday people who have gone through some sort of unusual experience that left them believing this. Left them believing simulation theory on the other side of it their experiences. I think they are really at the heart of the film.
How did you first get started with A Glitch In The Matrix?
It came directly out of an earlier project I did, The Nightmare which is about people who experience sleep paralysis. One of them mentioned that the things that he saw, the people, the visions in that heightened state of consciousness, that he suspected that they were a glimpse through the simulation. He asked me ‘are you familiar with simulation theory?’ and at the time, I wasn’t. I sort of had an idea of what he was talking about, but then I went away and started researching it and a whole other rabbit hole l opened up that I still haven’t completely managed to crawl out of!
What was it about this subject that inspired you to create a documentary around it?
This is something that I am interested in. That I like to watch. I read a lot of stories on message threads and bulletin boards where people were talking about experiences that led them to believe in simulation theory that kind of put a chill through me in a way. That was like reading a ghost story or a really, really good episode of The Twilight Zone.
I think the earliest conception of it was the idea of a non-fiction Twilight Zone-style anthology film. Of course, once you go under the hood and go to work on something like this, it metamorphosizes into a very different piece. But I think a non-fiction Twilight Zone movie sounds like the kind of thing that people would like to see. I know it’s the kind of thing that I’d like to see!
Where did you do begin with your research for the documentary?
One of the first big milestones was coming across Nick Bostrom’s article, his ‘Are we living in a simulation?’ paper which lays out that three-part simulation hypothesis and the simulation argument and he makes a little bit of a distinction between the two. This guy’s an Oxford professor and so much smarter than me and I can only get my head around a certain portion of what he’s written! Then the story started to get picked up and he describes that too. After he wrote what he thought was going to be a fairly obscure article in an academic journal, it started getting picked up by all sorts of places in the mainstream press. Fascinating articles about it in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Yorker.
I just continued to keep tabs on it for awhile. I thought about it for maybe three years before we really went into production and during that time, people started talking about the Mandela effect. Also at that time, Elon Musk had an appearance at a conference where he talked about it, and there was an amazing article in The New Yorker magazine about guys who were creating a video game in which there was an entire universe and you could explore every planet. And in order to calculate the planet with flora and fauna, there is no way there’s going to be time for somebody to design every leaf on every tree, every hair on every animal on a multi planetary-scale, so they found these algorithms that spontaneously generate that stuff. That article really left me thinking. I was imagining being one of those video game designers, going on a hike through the mountains, looking at the way that the leaves are growing on the trees and comparing them to how they grow in the video game seeing a similarity and being kind of struck by that.
Then probably the tipping point again was those message boards where people would say ‘I had this uncanny experience where I woke up in the middle of the night and I went to get food and the road looked different and then I came home and everything was normal again and it seems like a dream’.
Seeing those sorts of non-fiction uncanny Twilight Zone type stories really helped cement the idea that there was enough to start working with here and enough directions to go in that we could easily spend an hour and a half. I mean, we could probably spend three times that. In fact, the first cut of this movie was like 2 hours and 45 minutes. It was a brutal endurance test for the poor victims I forced to give me feedback!
A Glitch In The Matrix also discusses a real-life crime – why did you decide to add this element in?
Well first off, I tried to braid it in naturally because one of the things that happen in the movie is that every chapter starts to add another character and when Josh Cook first comes in, he’s just another person talking about The Matrix movie. And talking about it in a way that’s very relatable. It speaks to the way it struck people and how people would really engage with it. But eventually, it gets to this very dark place, where he commits murder.
That idea came in in the research. It took a while to find him in particular, but early in the research I discovered ‘The Matrix Defence’, which is, in the US, an insanity plea in criminal trials. When John Hinckley Junior was tried they talked a lot about the influence of Taxi Driver. With Josh and maybe a half dozen other people, part of their defence was the fact that they were alienated from reality, and they thought we were in some sort of artificial creation, and that speaks to limit their understanding of the consequences of their actions.
So I wanted to get ‘The Matrix Defence’ in because it seemed like a really interesting corner of simulation theory and then when I talked to him, I was both struck by the way he looked at the movie. He talked about how before everything fell apart, for along time it really helped him cope and it really empowered him.
So that, as well as the particulars of this crime, started to resonate with other parts of the movie. Because earlier there are characters talking about this reallu facinating idea but disconnected from reality. It felt, watching the movie that for the first hour or so the stories and reflections are all interesting, but the stakes aren’t that high. So to get to the place where now this is going to turn into something very very real, it felt like it gave it some gravitas.
What is it about genre that appeals to you?
I just enjoy them in a visceral way. Also visually they’re the most expressive films. In high school I aspired to be a comic book artist, so I’m very drawn to the visual components of films much more than the intricacies of a plot. Beyond that, one thing that I’ve learned is that by listening to people is that they give us a common language to talk about our life and the world around us.
A Glitch In The Matrix is available on Blu-ray and DVD now. Find out more here.