'A Glitch in the Matrix' Invites Viewers to Level Up Their Simulation Theory Know-How [Sundance Film Festival 2021]

Digital rendering of a virtual city
A scene from GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Picture. 

A Glitch in the Matrix centers on simulation theory, as popularized by the Matrix films, through footage culled from other sources, filmed interviews of its proponents, digital 3D renderings of the scenes described by the speakers, and extensive curated clips from popular films. Director Rodney Ascher, who has gained a reputation for creating documentaries that discuss the stuff of nightmares from a research standpoint, such as Room 237 and The Nightmare, stands at the helm.

Ascher and his team go to great lengths to cast a wide lens upon the topic. Chapter cards and transitions appear as if typed on a MS-DOS computer. Segments from a filmed speech Philip K. Dick gave in France, 1977, serve as an outline for the film. Although Dick is know as the writer of many science fiction novels and short stories adapted into movies (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall to name a few), the speculative worlds described in his books had a meaning far beyond fiction for the author. During his speech, Dick discusses his own journey in accepting simulation theory and presents the philosophical evidence for its validity. Other speakers share the historical context for the topic through philosophers such as Descartes and Plato. They play an important role in showing simulation theory is in no way a new idea. Throughout the film, clips from popular movies -- many based on Dick's writings -- and video games breathe life into the abstract theories. Because these films loom large in popular culture, they allow the viewer to keep pace with what is being said.

The film dedicates much time to how the public received and reacted to The Matrix movie and its sequel at the turn of the century, starting in 1999.

Image of digital man holding cup
A scene from GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

By far, the most interesting scenes of the movie feature the interviews done with four believers. Each appears adorned in full avatar, a step which allows for full anonymity plus seems true to form. Ascher and the crew put out a call for eyewitnesses to share their testimony, and these four were chosen for their diverse perspectives and energy. As the speakers share their stories, 3D digital renderings of their memories appear on screen. While these memories vary in tone from nightmarish to nihilistic to humorous, all keep the attention and serve to illustrate the reasons they believe in simulation theory. Filmed videos of experts are also included. Although a few lean too heavily into quantum physics jargon, the majority of these interviews keep to language and storytelling accessible to the average viewer. 

The topic turns grim with a few segments that should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say, these segments show the darker side of simulation theory, if taken to its darkest conclusion. Many of the speakers feel inspired or excited by the possibilities opened up by the theory. For others, thinking about being trapped in an undesirable reality only breeds more despair. Ascher explores the topic fully by including these bleaker moments.

a machine operates on a brain
A scene from GLITCH IN THE MATRIX, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Ascher's long-time collaborator Jonathan Snipes created the score and sound design for the film. Snipes was inspired by 1990s electronic beats, the music of hacker movies, and computer-generated sounds. Although Snipes samples a few tracks from other artists, the majority of the film score is original and lends a thematic unity to the overall sound of the documentary. Listen to view my interview with Jonathan Snipes.

Regardless of your view on simulation theory, A Glitch in the Matrix offers plenty of fodder to chew upon. This topic should draw interest from fans of science fiction, philosophy, pop culture, or virtual reality.

Release Info: Premieres at Sundance; available to watch at home starting February 5, 2021.  

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5

Movie poster for Glitch in the Matrix