Credit: Sundance Institute
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Film Horizon Line

A Glitch in the Matrix | Rodney Ascher

February 4, 2021

A Glitch in the Matrix is a shockingly tame study, likely only of interest to those yet to encounter even a Wikipedia summary of Simulation Theory.

The kindest thing one could say about Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix is that it’s a timely film, though even this may be a bit generous. Landing in the same year as a new Matrix film and in a cultural moment where “red pill” has become a recognized verb, it’s easy to see why Sundance has positioned Ascher’s simulation theory documentary as a major title. Yet, A Glitch in the Matrix does little beyond planting its flag in this territory, offering up what is essentially a survey course with moments of cartoonish spectacle. 

In keeping with the aesthetics of his previous films, Ascher’s conceit for A Glitch in the Matrix is to center interview subjects culled from message boards and YouTube; individuals who have some obsession with the subject at hand, but lack institutional credibility. The interviewees are questioned on how they initially got swept up in this subculture, their hypotheses regarding the scope and purpose of the simulation, and the ultimate impact it’s had on their lives — their responses soundtracked over reappropriated footage from a variety of popular science fiction cinema. Those familiar with Ascher’s past work should recognize all of this, his very subjective approach to documentary filmmaking largely unchanged since debut feature Room 237 played this festival in 2012. That said, A Glitch in the Matrix does employ a new (much advertised) trick — interviewees are represented on screen via kooky digital avatars (of Ascher’s design) — but it’s a flourish that does little to reveal deeper truths on the subject, serving more as (often laughable) distraction.

One could argue that distraction and/or distance is actually Ascher’s intended effect, to perhaps replicate the feelings of isolation and anti-empathy voiced by some of the subjects in the audience. But alas, this is one decent idea among many weaker ones, the film’s perspective flitting about between these avatar sequences, Room 237-style breakdowns of The Matrix, archival footage of Philip K. Dick, and talking-head interviews with traditional (non-digitized) academics. Some of this might perhaps be of interest to those who are newly aware of simulation theory or have never considered the Wachowski Sisters’ 1999 opus very carefully, but those who do not place into either camp will be surprised at how shallow A Glitch in the Matrix is (mentions of “simulacra” but no talk of Baudrillard?). But where some may gain the occasional insight, it’s hard to imagine coming away satisfied by Ascher’s pragmatic thesis, his subjective documentary style belying a distinct perspective. A shockingly tame approach to such existentially alarming subject matter, A Glitch in the Matrix is the sort of movie the simulation might generate to dissuade us from ever investigating further.

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.