'A Glitch In The Matrix' Review: 'Room 237' Director Explores Simulation Theory [Sundance 2021]

Rodney Ascher is still best known as the filmmaker behind the enthralling 2012 documentary Room 237, a deep dive into several unconventional readings of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining that ended up being a movie about obsession. He's directed a few other projects since then, but now he's back to explore that same topic from a different perspective with A Glitch in the Matrix, a film which delves into the long-held theory that we're all living in a simulation. 

From the very first frame, Ascher establishes that this is not going to be a traditional experience. The opening shot is of a mechanized lion warrior staring into a webcam from a normal-looking home office; it's a digital costume, an avatar "worn" by his first interviewee. Throughout the movie, the director speaks with several different digital avatars (one looks like an alien wearing a fishbowl helmet, one looks like a horse with laser eyes), disguising the true appearance of what he calls "eyewitnesses" – people who share the moments when they woke up to what they perceive to be the real truth of this world: that none of what we're living in is actually "real" and the whole thing is a simulation. Ascher reenacts their moments of awakening by using purposefully janky computer generated animation that often looks like something out of The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, a technique which keeps the viewer at a healthy emotional distance from what's on display.

But it's not just a bunch of oddballs who have this theory: the film points out that the Greek philosopher Plato was pondering this possibility thousands of years ago. The movie frequently incorporates excerpts from a 1977 lecture by science fiction author Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall), who was a fervent believer in the idea, and features archival footage with people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk who have entertained the notion as well. Ascher also speaks with experts of his own, writers and scientists who hew less toward new age-y anecdotes and toward a more academic approach.

As in Room 237, Ascher never really seems like he's trying to put his finger on the scale and convince the audience that any one of these experiences is the "right" one. Instead, the movie feels more like he's just fascinated in the subject and we're taking a journey with him, learning as much about it as possible in a condensed time period. The sheer scope of ideas he touches on here is dizzying: the concept of fragmented memories from alternate realities, the steadily-improving quality of computer generated photorealism, the Mandela effect, the nihilism that can arise if you subscribe to the simulation theory, the intersection of religion and technology, and much more.

It's all entertaining enough on the surface, but I couldn't help but shake the feeling that this just does not feel like the right time for a movie like this, considering how conspiracy theories have been mainstreamed over the past couple of years and have seeped into our world in increasingly dangerous ways.

And I had that thought before I reached the film's most disturbing segment: a very lengthy section in which Ascher interviews a man who was an devotee of the 1999 movie The Matrix, outfitted himself in a black trench coat like Neo, and murdered both of his parents with a shotgun. Ascher's CG recreations put us inside the killer's virtual house while the murderer, from a prison phone, tries to explain his actions. It's deeply disturbing, not only because of the violent nature of his descriptions and the movie's insistence on plunging you into a visual representation of his world, but because he seems to shift the blame to The Matrix itself and the music he was listening to at the time (the Drowning Pool song "Bodies," known for its repeating line "let the bodies hit the floor").

It turns out there's a reason for Ascher spending all this time on this segment: it was to lay out the history for something called "The Matrix defense," a branch of the insanity plea and a legal gambit that's been used by several people since 2003, including the DC sniper. But this segment left a bad taste in my mouth, and it negatively colors the whole rest of the movie, giving me the sense that Ascher primarily sees violent video games as a potential gateway to real-world violence. That's a complex topic that the film simply doesn't have time to properly explore. One of his experts rightly draws a line between the culture of live-streaming and the New Zealand shooter who live-streamed his massacre as if it was a game, and there's some time devoted to a gamer who stole a plane in 2018 and flew it around the skies of Seattle before crashing. But – and not to go full "Not All Gamers" on you, because that mentality has its own share of problems – the movie doesn't acknowledge the disproportionate number of people who play violent games and don't subsequently commit crimes. It seems content to absolve individuals of their responsibility by pointing a finger at games and music as a way to justify those behaviors. Again, this is a thorny topic that could serve as the subject of its own feature-length documentary, but the half-baked nature of how it's treated here feels like it does more harm than good to this particular story.

A Glitch in the Matrix is more than just a conspiracy theory movie: it's about how we function in a societal system, how we interact with other people, and what happens when we embrace a worldview which seemingly offers answers to things in life that don't make sense to us. But the movie stumbles over its muddled execution of some of those ideas, and as a result, can't help but feel like a letdown./Film Rating: 4 out of 10