In 1977, shortly after watching Star Wars on the big screen, science fiction author Philip K. Dick went to address a convention of fans with a prepared talk. But it was not what anybody was expecting. In it, he announced that he believed he was living in a computer-generated simulation, not unlike the scenarios featured in his books, and went on to explain why this theory was valid enough to pass for the truth. Since then, the theory re-emerged with the 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, which took Dick's ideas to fashion a story depicting the modern world as created by a supercomputer to keep humanity docile and occupied - which some people took as a message of truth.
The Matrix, its directors and writers the Wachowski siblings will tell you, was intended as a metaphor for their identities as transgender women and how they woke up to that new way of seeing themselves and thinking about the world. Whether you think they were merely being wise after the fact and retrofitting their experiences as having since transitioned once their trilogy was released, or whether you accept their work was trying to tell both themselves and the audience something about sexuality, there is not much evidence they were intent on spawning a new way of rejecting what the majority of humanity saw around them every day, no matter what.
And yet, documentarian Rodney Ascher took this film as a jumping off point for a whole movement that grew in force as the internet bloomed in the world's homes and workplaces, leading billions to exist as avatars in what was called cyberspace, much as the Keanu Reeves character Neo did in its fictional realm. Throughout Ascher is wary, even cagey, about drawing any conclusions - he prefers to put a mass of information and opinion out there and allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions instead, an approach that either presents a fascinating look into cracked and obsessional psyches or will have you gritting your teeth in frustration. And yet, something editorial is there.
There were interviews here with believers in the simulation theory, all represented in their homes over internet calls (appropriately), and all made to resemble slightly out of date CGI avatars, perhaps to conceal their identities (though their names are plain to see and they give out plenty of personal information - again, it's the internet). There are also interviews with experts on this subject, inasmuch as you can be an expert on what sounds like hokey vintage sci-fi paperbacks informed the whole subject, no matter that the theory is tracked back as far as Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, but as ever with this director, what was important was crafting a collage of unconventional points of view rather than solving any conundrums. Get to the heart of the subject by delving straight into its kookier elements, if not the downright psychotic.
Even so, there are moments when the true believers achieve a little clarity in that they understand this might not be entirely sane, or healthy. Late on Ascher introduces telephone testimony from a man who, at nineteen, was so preoccupied with The Matrix that he denied his reality and used it as an excuse to commit murder to prove that denial; it's now known as "The Matrix Defense" in American courts, though the killer was jolted out of his fantasy by the crime and subsequently refused to use it in his trial. But the fact that increasing numbers carry the gaming or internet world over into real life is cause for concern, which this film rather dances around, to its detriment. Nevertheless, Ascher uses his clips with laser precision to conjure his fugues of fact and fiction, bolstering the view that when pop culture replaces education the results ain't pretty. You imagine those who subscribe to this solipsism will be infuriated by the film, while those who find it insulting will be too, but it makes concrete something nebulous about the overarching superstitions and self-centredness of the twenty-first century, where anything is as real as you want it to be - or insist it is.
[A Glitch in the Matrix is released on 5 February 2021 on VOD platforms and Dogwoof On Demand.
A Glitch in the Matrix DVD and Blu-ray release 10 May 2021.]