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Does Humanity Live in a Simulated Reality?

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Despite its basis in reality and heavy association with journalism, documentary is an incredibly subjective form. Few filmmakers lean into this subjectivity as openly and enthusiastically as Rodney Ascher. He finds niche, often highly specific phenomena and treats them to serious and in-depth scrutiny. How niche and specific? His 2010 short The S From Hell is about people who were all terrified by a movie studio logo in the ’60s. Room 237 (2012), a feature-length examination of fan theories and academic investigations of The Shining, presented its subjects’ ideas with so little overt editorializing that some viewers, including Stephen King himself, thought it was uncritically endorsing their (frequently off-the-wall) interpretations. I wonder, then, how many will watch Ascher’s new film, A Glitch in the Matrix, and believe (for better or worse) that it is telling us that we all live in a simulated reality. In truth, the filmmaker’s latest is less an argument than a question, one more interesting than the simulation hypothesis: What makes people think that reality is fake?

Now, saying that it’s more interesting to ask why people believe in the simulation theory than it is to address the simulation theory is the sort of thing that would mark me as a villain in The Matrix, one who’s purposefully trying to keep the good guys asleep to the true nature of the world, so let me explain. If the universe is nothing but a simulation, there’s not one good goddamn thing you can do about it, so it’s probably good to simply act as if it is real and assume your actions have meaningful consequences. This is the complex ethical principle known as “Don’t be an asshole, even if you think you’ve found a solid existential excuse for it.” (To add a bit more intellectual rigor, there are a lot more convincing philosophically and scientifically grounded arguments that the Universe is real — all of which I can only half understand — than there are such arguments that it’s fake … which I can also only half understand.) In the face of our powerlessness over our existence, what people choose to do and how they think within that existence (real or not) becomes the salient issue.

Of course, listening to the different theories on how our seemingly tangible reality could instead be an illusion (whether it’s that you’re a brain with nodes hooked up to it, a character in a game created by higher beings, or something weirder) is thoroughly entertaining. But as Ascher interviews philosophers and laymen alike on their beliefs, the subtext is often that they came to those beliefs less through an empirical assessment of the facts but because these theories validate a deeper, ineffable sense of alienation from the world. If you feel out of place or out of step with the way things are, maybe it’s because you’re attuned to the flaws in the very fabric of the universe!

From A Glitch in the Matrix

The visuals of Room 237 consist entirely of clips from The Shining and other Kubrick films, while Ascher’s The Nightmare (2015) features extensive recreations of the sleep paralysis episodes its interviewees recount. Similarly, A Glitch in the Matrix is told heavily through CG animation, playfully nodding to how its subjects believe the world operates. Even the interviews themselves are depicted not as talking heads, but with voices coming from fanciful animated creatures, such as a lion-headed soldier … thing. This and the heavy use of pop culture references, from Plato’s allegory of the cave to, of course, The Matrix, suggest the influence that media has on our ways of thinking. In this film’s construction, the line between selfhood and broader society is cleverly blurred.

From A Glitch in the Matrix

A Glitch in the Matrix may use simulation theory as its basis, but it’s really about solipsism. This is why, though his presence may rankle, it’s important that the film has so many clips of Elon Musk, one of the theory’s most prominent proponents. In these men (and they are almost all men, imagine that) we see the compulsion to find some excuse to discount the real world, and the film follows this train of thought to its darker implications. The most extreme case is a young man whose obsession with The Matrix was part of a pathology that ultimately led him to murder his parents. Also disquieting are those who believe that the majority of humans are “NPCs” (a concept that has a lot of overlap with fascist sentiment circulating online). It’s a stark warning that, as intriguing as these theories may be, one should be wary of anything that lures you away from empathy. And if I’m wrong about that, leading one of you out there to wink me out of existence when you find the right thread to pull, then so be it.

A Glitch in the Matrix is now available in virtual cinemas and on demand.

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