by | Feb 2, 2021 | Films, Virtual Cinema

A Documentary Plunge Into Simulation Theory and its True Believers

Director: Rodney Ascher, USA, 2020, 108 min.
Official Selection, 2021 Sundance Film Festival
Rental fee $12 per household.

Included with your CWC film rental, discussion with director Rodney Ascher and critic Joshua Rothkopf.

Trailer best viewed full screen or in p-i-p mode.


A Documentary Plunge Into Simulation Theory and its Resonant, Annoying True Believers

There are numerous words and metaphors one could use to describe simulation theory: the belief, popularized two decades ago by The Matrix, that the life we’re living — the people we know, the experiences we have, what we see, touch, think, and feel — is literally an illusion, an artificial façade orchestrated by minds far more developed than our own.

But the one who really paved the way for simulation theory — who gave it cachet, and a certain scruffy literary cool — was Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction visionary who died in 1982, but not before laying down, in many of his stories and novels, the grand foundations for simulation theory.

Simulation theory, says the film, is now “fiercely debated online and in classrooms, laboratories, design studios, and courtrooms.” It has grown and metastasized. Kind of like QAnon. That’s what good conspiracy theory does: It makes you think, Could this be true? Maybe….

In A Glitch in the Matrix, by contrast, filmmaker Rodney Ascher sees through simulation theory, and he wants to show us — almost warn us — how prevalent it’s becoming. It truly is a cousin to QAnon, another belief system that posits our own world as a masquerade.

But the larger story here  — one that transcends left-vs.-right ideologies — is that more and more people in our culture are beholden to visions so removed from reality that it doesn’t seem extreme to say that those visions amount to a collective mental illness. The difference is, it’s not a detachment from reality that comes from the inside; it’s a detachment from reality that comes from the outside — from the culture at large, from fantasy entertainment that bleeds into delusional politics that bleeds into the belief that existence itself is a mere mirage.


How do we know the world is real? There’s the evidence of our five senses—sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing—but can’t those responses be hijacked or simulated? Such questions have preoccupied thinkers for millennia, from the speculations of ancient religious texts and philosophers like René Descartes, to science fiction novels, television and blockbuster films. Given our online infoscape peopled by digital avatars and hobbled by conspiracy theories, is it a surprise that existential doubt is gaining traction?

A kaleidoscopic deep dive down the rabbit hole of “simulation theory,” A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is a mind-bending, exhilarating and definitive introduction to a subject that, subscribe to it or not, involves us all. Directed by Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare), the preeminent documentarian of today’s obsessional thinking, the film introduces us to a handful of real-world testifiers who are certain that their bodies and minds are being operated by some external game-player.

Ascher, as ever an inviting, curious questioner (never one who mocks), brings a wealth of cultural and intellectual context to his latest exploration, from the videotaped musings of sci-fi giant Philip K. Dick to clips of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and a host of bespoke animated re-creations that give eerie credence to the most outré of notions. Ultimately venturing into serious concepts of identity, legal culpability and the mechanics of social responsibility, A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is an unusual and audacious documentary.


RODNEY ASCHER – Director, Editor, and Executive Producer

Ascher is a filmmaker known for creating documentaries that explore the
subjective experience, freely appropriating the vocabularies of genre, experimental, and found-footage films along the way.

A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX is his most ambitious film yet, using multiple styles of 3D animation to illustrate the experiences and philosophies of people who suspect the world itself is not quite real.

His first feature, 2012’s ROOM 237 looked at The Shining through the eyes of five very different people. He visualized their wildly different interpretations of Kubrick’s classic by juxtaposing excerpts of the film with everything from Murnau’s Faust to the cover of the January 1978 issue of Playgirl magazine creating a trip down the rabbit hole that Chuck Klosterman, writing in Grantland, said “Obliterated my cranium.” It premiered at Sundance, went on to play Cannes and the NYFF before screening at over 30 festivals and being released theatrically all over the world. The film was largely made on his home computer at night and on weekends on a budget in the low three figures (before legal fees.)

His follow up, THE NIGHTMARE was called “The Scariest Movie of the decade” which might be overstating it, but looked great on the poster. Creatively, the film completely changed tactics from Room 237’s archival-driven montage. To visualize real people’s seemingly supernatural experiences during bouts of ‘sleep paralysis’ his team filmed interviews at night in the subjects’ own bedrooms and created stylized re-enactments inspired by the interviewees’ drawings and his own personal memories of a visitation by a ‘shadowman.’ Like Room 237, it premiered at Sundance before traveling around the world including an Imax screening in Moscow.

Other Projects include an GIF-centric music video for the Hugo-nominated hip-hop band CLIPPING (featuring Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) and editing Andy Kaufman’s posthumous comedy album ANDY AND HIS GRANDMOTHER (Drag City) from a newly unboxed archive of 80+ hours of cassette recordings the comedian made in the late 1970s. He also created PRIMAL SCREEN a documentary series for the Shudder network and directed a short comic horror film for Hulu about the creation of a Halloween sound effects record (starring Knives Out’s Noah Segan and Barry Lyndon/Eyes Wide Shut’s Leon Vitali.)

Last year he premiered THE EL DUCE TAPES (with co-directors David Lawrence and Ryan Sexton) at Hot Docs and the BFI/London Film festival. The film, focussed on the notorious lead singer of the 2nd most offensive rock band of the 1980s and 90s was made almost entirely from archival footage shot on a VHS camcorder. The project began as a time capsule and a character study but became strangely reflective of 21st Century socio- political controversies which became inescapable during the making of the film.

Having grown up in Boston and Florida (where he graduated from the University of Miami) he now lives in the northeast edge of Los Angeles with his talented wife, a beautiful cat, and a ten year old with a special interest in the sinking of the Titanic.

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