Is this the real life?
Dir: Rodney Ascher. US. 2021. 108 mins
What if the world in which we are living is, in fact, a simulation? What if we are characters in a game or an experiment controlled by a higher intelligence? What if free will is a myth and The Matrix was rooted in reality (or what passes for reality?) What if the very act of exploring this idea will trigger a rift in the lateral arrangement of worlds, of which we are just one? There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ in the latest film from Rodney Ascher, which uses a famous lecture by Philip K. Dick as a springboard to launch a deep dive into the heady mix of sci-fi, religion, philosophy, paranoia and technology which constitutes ‘simulation theory’. Fascinating, mind-expanding, infuriating and bewildering, this is a bracingly ambitious documentary which embraces the artificiality of the computer generated animation which constitutes a large part of its approach.
The film constantly treads a delicate balance between marshalling its thrillingly provocative theories and spiralling off into the nonsensical.
Ascher has always been at home at the more subjective end of the factual filmmaking spectrum. And like his debut film, Room 237, A Glitch In The Matrix is largely composed of passionately argued but outlandish theories. Their proponents are less concerned with the burden of proof than with the fact that these are ideas that can’t entirely be disproved. As such, the film constantly treads a delicate balance between marshalling its thrillingly provocative theories and spiralling off into the nonsensical. Like any mind-expanding experience, it will find enthusiastic advocates and potentially even a cult following, both on the festival circuit and through a wider release. Magnolia holds worldwide rights and plans to release the film in the US in theatres and on demand on February 5th.
The film utilises extensive archive material, including numerous film clips, quotes from high-profile advocates such as Elon Musk and footage from Philip K. Dick’s seminal lecture at the Metz science fiction conference in 1977 (one feels for the poor translator who had to explain Dick’s grim assertions that we live in “a computer programmed reality” to an audience expecting a nice chat about aliens). This is combined with interviews with contributors, loosely divided into “eyewitnesses”, who claim to have first-hand experiences which have led them to believe the simulation theory, and “expert testifiers” who explore the idea from an academic or philosophical angle. All the interviews took place online, with the eyewitnesses concealed by digital avatars – gaming is integrally linked to current simulation theory, although the roots of related belief systems can be traced back to Plato and to numerous branches of organised religion.
Gaming graphics inform the CG animation which is used to illustrate the anecdotes of those who believe they have evidence of a simulated reality; computer games from Pong to Minecraft to photorealistic multiplayer adventures are referenced by interviewees; even the electronic score sounds like something that could have been composed by a malevolent A.I. And although it is not the film’s central thesis, the film does inadvertently make the case that extensive exposure to gaming might not be entirely beneficial to mental health. That said, it would be reductive to suggest that anyone who makes a case for simulation theory is entirely deluded This is certainly a film which will plant seeds in the minds of its audience, and will no doubt figure prominently in a debate which is only just getting started.
Production company: Campfire Film & Media
Distribution: Magnolia Pictures International firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Ross Dinerstein
Editing: Rodney Ascher
Animation: Mindbomb Films, Davy Force
Animation Directors: Syd Garon, Lorenzo Fonda
Music: Jonathan Snipes
Main cast: Nick Bostrom, Erik Davis, Emily Pothast, Chris Ware, Jeremy Felts, Joshua Cooke, Paul Gude, Alex LeVine, Brother Læo Mystwood, Jesse Orion