Sundance Review: A Glitch in the Matrix
There’s an idea, catapulted into the mainstream with the release of 1999’s The Matrix, that the world we’re living in may be a mere simulation. This theory, espoused by writers like Philip K. Dick as early as the 1970s and interrogated by philosophers and physicists in the years since, is one of those galaxy-brained concepts that seems best suited for science-fiction and college dorm rooms, but director Rodney Ascher posits that it’s worth a closer look as he turns his camera on those who believe simulation theory may explain earthly occurrences.
Perhaps it’s my own lingering college dorm room nostalgia (or love of The Matrix), but simulation theory is an inherently intriguing subject, such that A Glitch in the Matrix doesn’t have to do too much to keep your attention. Utilizing a mix of scientific-minded experts and amateur proponents of the theory, Ascher throws a lot of the big ideas at the wall, many of which stick, especially when there are knowledgeable folks on screen expanding on them. Less successful are Ascher’s interviews with the regular joes of the world, most of whom are hidden behind pseudonyms and computer-generated avatars that cover their faces. As these individuals talk through the experiences that led them to embrace simulation theory, their stories are backed by onscreen recreations of the low-res, Minecraft variety — I imagine in an attempt to portray the blurring of reality being described, but it can’t quite paper over the fact that not too many of these tales amount to much more than The Matrix’s quick (and more elegant) explanation of déjà vu as the type of glitch this movie takes its name from.
A Glitch in the Matrix does tap into some fascinating ideas — it’s at its most engaging when it takes the time to delve into the interplay between simulation theory and religion — but the film’s positives are drastically overshadowed by a woefully misguided narrative decision in the back half of the film. You start to realize something might be a little off when an interview kicks off in voice-over only, but you’d be forgiven if you didn’t recognize the name that flashed on the screen. The individual in question is Joshua Cooke, who the film treats as their big get but whose fame stems entirely from being one of the first people to attempt the “Matrix Defense” in a court of law. You see, when Cooke was a teenager he murdered both his parents, and when it came to light that he was obsessed with The Matrix, his lawyers argued insanity because of his belief that he might be living in a simulation.
As an portion of the larger story surrounding simulation theory there’s no denying Cooke’s case could be worth mentioning, but Ascher goes several steps further, choosing to make Cooke’s detailed, first person recounting of the grisly murders of his parents the centerpiece of the film, complete with a digital walkthrough of Cooke’s empty home, tracing his deadly path. The film’s production notes call the moment “a flashpoint,” “shocking,” and “groundbreaking,” which is how the film treats it — as an edgy moment, meant to deliver a gut punch to the audience, show them how dark the film is willing to go. Maybe for some that will be the effect, but I found it unnecessarily exploitative, exacerbated by the film’s inability or unwillingness to substantively engage with the material it has chosen to inflict upon the audience.
Cooke’s participation seems to stem from a sense of remorse and a desire to help keep other troubled youth from ruining their lives or those of others. That’s all well and good, but the filmmakers don’t help him follow through on that desire. I’m typically not one to police the content of art, but I’ve found where the line is for me: capitalizing on a real-life tragedy to maximize shock value, without enough insight, engagement, or empathy to justify the inclusion. There are ways this story and these interviews could have been included, but they require a level of nuance that just isn’t on display here — the filmmakers are instead content to use a cudgel, and it ultimately dooms the film.