[SUNDANCE 2021] MOVIE REVIEW: A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX serves up the idea that the world is a giant simulation for a chosen few, but loses focus in its telling.


Director Rodney Ascher (Room 237) channels the work of science fiction author Phillip K. Dick in exploring the idea of simulation theory, but that gets muddied with sidetracks with Elon Musk, trenchcoat killers, and self-involved video gaming addicts.

It was 11 years ago at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that I was first exposed to director Rodney Ascher’s work, a short film called The S from Hell that played before one of the films at the festival about people whose psyches were scarred by the Sony Screen Gems logo. As Ascher played loops of the logo in reverse, or iterations of it over the years from the television shows it appeared before, the audience heard muffled cries and testimonies from those who claimed its jingle was satanic or it served as an omen for something evil. Several years later, I saw Ascher’s feature film, Room 237, which took this concept and applied it to a film, The Shining, and regaled the audience with clips from the film as we heard everyday people talk about how the hotel’s layout was somehow tied to a theory that The Shining’s director Stanley Kubrick had faked the moon landing in 1969.

Ascher’s trademark approach to documentary filmmaking; one part VICE expose, one part Everything is Terrible-esque video montages set to testimonials from conspiracy theorists and those whose mental health is somewhat questionable, surfaces again in his latest film debuting at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, A Glitch in The Matrix. Ostensibly named for a Reddit community of people who think odd incidents in their lives are proof that they are living in an elaborate simulation meant to keep them under control for some unexplained reason, A Glitch in The Matrix explores that idea of simulation theory through the lens of the writing of science fiction author Phillip K. Dick. Dick, whose legacy of writings inspired films like Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, Minority Report, and many others that deal with individuals whose life might not be what they perceive it to be at first glance. Dick himself believed he lived in an elaborate simulation and we are treated to footage of Dick talking about his beliefs at a literary convention in the late 1970s.

To follow up on this idea, Ascher interviews several individuals via Zoom who have grown up believing they are living in an elaborate simulation throughout their lives. This idea of solipsism, that one is the only real person in the world and no one else is real or that their existence can’t be verified is taken to its logical end as Ascher also interviews Joshua Cooke. Cooke, who murdered his parents in 2003, believed he was living in The Matrix and murdered his parents as a way to try and prove he was inside a simulation. This series of interviews in the film is incredibly off-putting as the people interviewed here are impossible to empathize with on any level. Moreover, the proofs offered by some, that spending hours gaming is a way for the simulation to conserve energy is something straight out of an episode of Rick and Morty. Ascher’s approach constantly derails his examination of the idea of simulation theory by leading us into segues that people like Elon Musk and other celebrities might be avatars for gamers outside of our realm of consciousness to “play” in our reality. What these asides do is drag the film’s pacing down and make it difficult to follow what arguments or exploration Ascher is doing into the subject aside from the fact that there have been a lot of films made about the subject matter.

The film lacks the polish and production value of his last Sundance submission, The Nightmare, in 2015. We do get odd CGI characters that have been rotoscoped over Zoom interviews to add to the aesthetic of the film and exploration of avatars. The film’s sound design is also commendable, as it contains lots of synth of chiptune inspire scoring. But ultimately, it is difficult to get onboard A Glitch in The Matrix, as it feels like this is a subject he could have mined a lot out of, and ultimately the narrative jumps from conspiracy to Joe Rogan, to Elon Musk, to Mars missions that rather than how we may be in a simulation. Instead, we get a jumbled hash of Keanu Reeves movies, clips of celebrities who maybe system super users, and way more questions than answers at the end of the film’s running time. If you enjoyed Room 237, this is more of the same and you will likely dig it. But, if you’re looking for an objective look at the philosophical ideas of simulation theory and solipsism, this might not be your bag.