By Nicole Veneto
A Glitch in the Matrix is nowhere near as unhinged as a Dinesh D’Souza “documentary,” but it’s mentally taxing to watch so many people describe the real world like it’s Minecraft.
We live in hyperreal times. The Simpsons anticipated the Trump presidency in 2000, America’s immigration policy is straight out of Children of Men, and the speculative disaster of a global pandemic in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is now a historic reality. You’re not alone if you feel as if we’re trapped in a broken simulation of the present. Who knows? Maybe reality is all an elaborate ruse controlled by shadowy elites or extraterrestrial forces. Sound plausible, given that the current moment resembles a Paul Verhoeven movie.
So is it any wonder that conspiratorial thinking has moved out of the margins and into mainstream discourse, propelled by the insular group-think of ever-increasing internet communities and spread through the compulsive use of communication technology. COVID lockdowns continue to shrink the physical parameters of our everyday lives, so the disenfranchised retreat into the comforts of fictional worlds to ease their existential anxiety, processing “reality” in terms of television, film, and video games. In the online sphere, your perception of existence comes down to a penultimate question: Do you take the blue pill, “wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” or do you take the red pill and see “how deep the rabbit-hole goes”?
If any film over the last twenty-odd years has shaped the culture’s notion of embodied reality in an increasingly digitized world, it’s arguably The Matrix. Besides popularizing the “red pill vs. blue pill” analogy, the film popularized the notion of simulation theory: our entire lived existence — what we perceive as “real” — is actually nothing but a grand illusion. The world itself is essentially a giant (broken) game of The Sims. In A Glitch in the Matrix, documentarian Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare) serves up a broad overview of simulation theory, looking primarily through the lens of pop culture. He traces this brand of techno-existentialism through the sci-fi writings of Philip K. Dick to its assumption of cultural potency in The Matrix. Incorporating an assemblage of film and video game footage, Zoom interviews with simulation theorists and supporters, and uncanny CG animation (that looks like it was rendered in Garry’s Mod, Glitch feels like a YouTube video essay stretched to feature length at best. At worst, the film is like listening to someone read through posts on r/RickAndMorty or Elon Musk’s insufferable tweets.
One of the many problems with the documentary is that it’s unfocused in its approach. Unlike Room 237, wherein Ascher drew on various theories (both plausible and outrageous) to interpret Kubrick’s The Shining, focusing on that film in order to explore the role of interpretation and meaning-making in film criticism, Glitch doesn’t frame its analysis of simulation theory through The Matrix or its cultural legacy. In fact, The Matrix doesn’t come into play until nearly an hour in. The first half of the film uses a 1977 speech Philip K. Dick gave in France theorizing that we live in a computer simulation as its theoretical foundation, establishing the writer as the pioneer of simulation theory. What’s important to note though is that Dick — who struggled with mental illness until his premature death in 1982 — came to believe in simulation theory after having several “mystical” visions while high off barbiturates recovering from dental surgery in 1974. He was no doubt a brilliant storyteller, yet Dick was also incredibly paranoid, even sending a letter to the FBI accusing fellow author Stanisław Lem of orchestrating a communist conspiracy to infiltrate the United States.
What becomes painfully apparent throughout Glitch is that simulation theory isn’t just an interesting metaphysical puzzle to its proponents, but an embrace of solipsism, a means to detach themselves from an increasingly atomized social world. It’s a neurotic coping mechanism that’s deeply nihilistic in its conception of the self, reducing other human beings to soulless non-playable characters (NPCs) and social relations to game mechanics. The supporters of simulation theory interviewed in the film are overlaid with CG video game characters (an interesting stylistic choice), presumably to conceal their identity because otherwise these men risk becoming the laughing stock of the internet. At one point, an interviewee represented by a caped robot that looks like the lovechild of Tom Servo and Darth Vader explicitly doubts that there are 7 billion people living in the world. Another questions the concept of object permanence with the idea that people T-pose like broken NPCs once they move outside our immediate cognition.
While the film doesn’t go out of its way to endorse these viewpoints, it certainly doesn’t do much to refute them, let alone examine that these beliefs might be the product of social disenfranchisement. The closest Glitch comes to skepticism is how it bungles the story of Joshua Cooke, a black teenager who shot his adopted parents in 2003 because he believed he was living in the virtual reality of The Matrix. The fact that Cooke was an untreated schizophrenic — and was allegedly sexually and physically abused throughout his childhood — is tacked on at the very end. What’s more important to establish is that Cooke’s hyperfixation on The Matrix encouraged him to buy a black trench coat from Hot Topic and listen to “Bodies” by Drowning Pool while killing his parents. It’s difficult to make a compelling case study when you frame your subject as an embarrassing edgelord.
Granted, A Glitch in the Matrix is nowhere near as unhinged as a Dinesh D’Souza “documentary,” but it’s mentally taxing to watch so many people describe the real world like it’s Minecraft. If you want to know exactly why the present moment feels like an outrageous parody of itself, I highly recommend watching HyperNormalisation by BBC documentarian Adam Curtis. No tinfoil hats required.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.