Twenty-two years after the release of The Matrix, documentarian Rodney Ascher examines the question of whether we can ever really know what’s real in this incurious and intellectually questionable documentary.
Ascher’s previous films – The Shining-inspired Room 237 and his somnambulant Nightmare among them – have always had an element of the paranoid and the liminal. His films often feel ironically detached from their interviewees, allowing them to rattle off their unhinged conspiracy theories on nocturnal alien invasion and faked moon landings uninterrupted. In this respect, A Glitch in the Matrix is the perfect Ascher film: detached, opaque and layered with irony.
Here the subject is ‘simulation theory’: the idea that we are living in a simulated reality. There are elements of the film that are certainly amusing, and the central conceit, as with his other documentaries, is fascinating in a post-party, stoned at 2am “Hey, have you ever wondered if…” way. Nevertheless, the problems with Ascher’s approach are manifold. It’s never made explicit whether the film takes seriously the wacky propositions offered by its subjects, if it wishes to expose their fantasies, or to simply observe their obsessions.
If it is the former, then Glitch’s moribund incuriosity makes sense, mistaking “Woah, cool” credulity for intellectual enquiry. If it’s the second goal, then the whole thing is no more than a mean-spirited and arrogant exercise in mockery, while the latter option fails to reveal little insight beyond the variety of conspiracy theories that simulation theory is capable of producing. Ultimately, however, the experience is very much like being talked at by a 14-year-old who’s just seen The Matrix for the first time.
Some experts are drafted in to explain the scientific basis of the theory, but Ascher’s random assortment of visual artefacts reveals a perilously-shallow cultural well from which he is drawing inspiration, not to mention his claim that The Matrix was the first pop-cultural entity to popularise simulation theory. Perhaps this too is done with irony, visualising his subjects’ own shallow grasp on their own obsession, but again, what does this offer us beyond exposure of the vulnerable? Irony will only get you so far when the line between subject and narrator is as blurred as it is here.
The one moment in legible sincerity comes towards the end of the film via an extended monologue from the ‘Matrix Killer’ Joshua Cooke, who at 19 years of age murdered his family after he became obsessed that he was trapped in a simulated world. It’s an extremely harrowing account that, invariably, is framed by a ‘media effects’ narrative more typically peddled by shrieking tabloids. Among the gaming-chair philosophers pontificating while wearing augmented-reality masks, such tasteless tone-switching rankles.
Documentaries have no duty to tell the ‘truth’ objectively. But they do have an obligation to reveal something previously unseen: of their subjects and of our own assumptions. A Glitch in the Matrix revels in its own opacity like an a priori argument, revealing little but a shallow voyeurism. There is certainly merit in asking why so many people follow these theories down the rabbit hole, and there’s no doubting the emotional impact of the film’s’ final harrowing segment. But A Glitch in the Matrix’s incuriosity and unstructured approach to its material at best mirror its subjects’ modes of thinking; at worst, it is little more than a voyeuristic freak show.
A Glitch in the Matrix is available now on Dogwoof On Demand. watch.dogwoof.com