Wednesday, June 9, 2021

I Know I Am, But What Are You? A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX


Here’s a dizzying philosophical chin-scratcher of a documentary. A Glitch in the Matrix is about “simulation theory,” the somewhat popular wondering that asks if all of existence might just be a sufficiently advanced computer program. Director Rodney Ascher has experience ceding a feature-length runway for conspiracy theorists to take off. His Room 237 gives uncritical space to amateur analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining to air their pet unsubstantiated claims — it’s about genocide, or a faked moon landing confession, or all sorts of squint-and-you-almost-see-it delusions prattled on and on. His The Nightmare is about sleep paralysis — with bird-walking detours into the occult or paranormal — and starts to feel like the sort of pseudo-horror that could be a kind of gooseflesh inception for the very condition it purports to expose.   So his latest hears out some guys — and they’re all guys, which seems an unspoken commentary of its own — who are convinced to some degree that, yes, we’re living in a simulation. Ascher puts their voices in obvious digital avatars, video-gamey caricatures with computerized visages who hold court on their ideas of our false reality. (That they’re gamers and sci-fi nerds is clear; that they’re all varying degrees of religious or spiritually contemplative is maybe a key to why these ideas converge.) The documentary starts off seeming stupid, maybe even dangerous. After all, if you start to convince yourself that nothing — and, more importantly, no one — around you is real, then what does that mean for your interpersonal behavior, your sense of self, your sense of responsibility to others? (We get clips from Rick and Morty and YouTube conspiracists, the better to emphasize the solipsism this might breed.) One guy even asserts that there’s no way a simulation could possibly be running seven billion completely unique consciousnesses. The film is full of digital spaces — video game footage, comic panels, film images — winking at and inhabiting the worlds-within-worlds, dreams-within-dreams vertigo this perceptual hall of mirrors opens up.

But the more Ascher lets these guys talk, the more he, and they, start to acknowledge the ideas’ potential for crackpot wanderings and destabilizing conclusions. Of course plenty of other cultural influences filter into the mix: Phillip K. Dick writings, Minecraft, Chris Ware comics, Plato’s allegory of the cave, and, obviously, The Matrix. Clips are deftly woven, and expert thinkers wisely chosen, to bolster and balance the core guys' thought experiments. This is smart context to keep things in perspective. The main subjects all describe moments of dawning awareness that sound like dissociative episodes, semi-dreamlike and pseudo-spiritual, and yet are also able to think practically about what these potential revelations mean to them. One admits he’d hate to fall back on the simulation theory if it was really his excuse for his own mind’s inability to grasp the full complexity of others’ existences. And one voice, we discover, in the film’s most skin-crawling, haunting passage, took his journey into the theory too far — his voice has been recorded from prison. And yet even there, Ascher isn’t pushing too hard on the theory — either for or against. He’s structured the film well to confront the theory directly, entertaining the hazy philosophizing of his thoughtful, troubled subjects, contextualizing them where necessary, addressing counterpoints and plunging head-on into the ambiguities of how we try to explain the world to ourselves. This is Ascher’s best movie because he’s willing to confront his subjects’ free-form conjecture—but it still comes up against the unknowable, albeit provocatively. I found myself intrigued and amused, suspicious and disturbed. But really, the question should be: if yes, what then? Of course they have no good answers; maybe that’s the glitch.

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