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Rodney Ascher looks for simulations and finds “A Glitch in the Matrix”

A Glitch in the Matrix

Rodney Ascher’s psychedelic documentary takes seriously the idea that we’re all living in a simulation, and stirringly explores the parameters of that premise.

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The most profound thing that’s shared in Rodney Ascher’s latest mind-expanding documentary comes at the beginning. One of the film’s “eyewitnesses”, Paul Gude, gives a brief history lesson on how humans understand themselves based on the highest form of technology at the time. 

When ancient civilizations built large aqueducts for the first time to help with farming on a mass scale, consciousness was thought to be like water flowing from different parts of the body. Later, when electricity first came onto the scene, people believed the soul was made of lightning. Now, in the age where vapes have tiny microchips in them, we see ourselves as computers. 

Gude, and several of Ascher’s subjects, take this idea literally. They believe we aren’t currently living in any tangible reality, but instead, we’re in a Matrix-style simulation. Our entire lives are video games being played by some omniscient being, or we’re watching a simulation of ourselves while on our deathbeds, or…well there are lots of theories thrown around, which is part of the fun. But like his excellent debut, Room 237, Ascher’s focus isn’t exactly on what the crazy theory is as much as who’s sharing them, and why they choose to go down the rabbit hole.

A Glitch in the Matrix (Magnolia Pictures)
A Glitch in the Matrix (Magnolia Pictures)

All of the simulation truthers have unique, sometimes heartbreaking, backstories that lead them to be “red-pilled”, the moment they realize they see the world for what it truly is while the rest of us sheep continue our naive existence. It’s been a problematic term applied for right-wing extremists and Incels recently, but Ascher avoids that territory. 

The personal stories these subjects tell, and the lives they live, still make them seem like troubled individuals, or best-case scenario, lonely dudes trying to make sense out of a chaotic world. It also doesn’t help that they appear on camera under the disguise of ridiculous looking avatars, such as a lion in a gladiator outfit, and they can’t seem to grasp when something is just a coincidence. 

Ascher tries to pull a similar trick he used with his Shining conspiracy theorists in Room 237, not by making us feel bad for them or judge them but using sharp filmmaking that makes us at least get on their level. The editing goes at super speed the whole time, creating a collage of different visual mediums. Using clips of everything from Adventure Time to Batman Forever to the video game Doom he’s able to make high-minded philosophical concepts (mostly) easy to understand. 

Combining the relentless editing with a propulsive score by Jonathan Snipes that sounds like a brain glitching on itself, the film creates a delirium that makes some of the trippy ideas seem plausible. By the time we get into how The Berenstain Bears are a clue we live in an alternate reality, it seems almost reasonable. 

Here, the theorizing and intellectual deep dives get to be exhausting with its breakneck pace.

The problem is one’s mileage may vary depending on how much red-pilling nonsense the audience can take. Room 237 works because it’s theories on fake moon landings and minotaurs play into the absorbing power of The Shining and comes off more as a love letter to the genius of Stanley Kubrick, as well as the timeless art of dissecting movies to an inch of their lives.

Here, the theorizing and intellectual deep dives get to be exhausting with its breakneck pace. Ascher divides the film into seven parts, interwoven with clips of a famous speech by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick in 1977 where he first introduces the concept of the simulation theory. He’s framed by “experts” and other talking heads as an all-knowing sage who nailed our current state of techno-paranoia.

He definitely got a few things right, but he also mentions he was high on sodium pentothal after a wisdom teeth extraction when he came up with his theory, which may explain some things. Also, some elements of the theory he throws at the audience (who look bored to mildly amused) have some real Eli Cash energy, especially when he explains how Jesus Christ actually meant for his teachings to lead us to discover we’re in a simulation. The different existential ideas the theorists constantly throw around may weigh it down, but ultimately, it’s a thought-provoking look at humanity’s constant struggle between free will and destiny. The simulation theorists can’t seem to accept that they are in control of their own lives, sometimes with tragic consequences, but Glitch in the Matrix also makes us at least ponder that they may be onto something. In a terrible reality filled with out-of-control pandemics and abject poverty, living inside a video game where there are no consequences, and you can actually throw parties with friends, sounds pretty nice right now. 

A Glitch in the Matrix is currently playing in theaters, on demand, and in virtual cinemas, including Music Box Direct.

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Sean Price

Sean Price was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana before moving to Chicago to pursue improv and sketch comedy. He has written, directed and produced several short films, music videos, and feature length screenplays.

He’s also performed and co-written several sketch shows, including a film-centric solo show called “Sean Price Goes to the Movies by Himself” at the Playground Theater.

When he's not contributing to The Spool, you can see him perform improv regularly at the IO Theater and ComedySportz Chicago.