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What If It’s All Just a Simulation?

Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary, ‘A Glitch in the Matrix,’ is a mind-bending exploration of the widespread belief that everything can be reduced to lines of computer code. But the director isn’t new to the ways humans try to find order amid life’s mysteries.

Magnolia Pictures/Ringer illustration

Rodney Ascher is pretty sure we don’t live in a computer simulation, but he likes to hedge his bets. “I see it everywhere I go,” Ascher says via Zoom. “I’ve got no idea if that’s because it is in fact catching on a popularity or that I’m looking for it. Kind of like when we bought a new car we started seeing those cars everywhere we went.”

Ascher’s latest documentary, A Glitch in the Matrix—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend prior to its debut on VOD on February 5—explores simulation theory, which posits that what we call reality is actually a computer simulation, or something akin to it, and that everything from the chair in which you sit to your family, friends, and neighbors, to the thoughts rushing through your head as you read this article, can be reduced to lines of code. The documentary includes conversations with everyone from Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of the influential article “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” to Brother Læo Mystwood, who sees coincidences and odd moments of synchronicity as proof of the simulation, particularly after a revelatory session inside a sensory-deprivation tank. (Mystwood also prefers to think in terms of 12-day spans rather than seven-day weeks, but that’s probably unrelated.)

In a moment when the idea of objective truth has become more slippery than ever—when, say, claims of election fraud can lead to violence no matter how widely they’re disproved—the expanding acceptance of simulation theory has far-reaching implications, even for those whose first impulse is to dismiss it. It’s also an idea so widespread that dismissing it isn’t really an option. “There was a temptation to say simulation theory is not real, that everybody needs to believe in reality,” Ascher says. “But I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true. There are people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk who take it seriously, and I don’t have confidence that I’m the person who can either prove it to be real or debunk it the same way.”

But proving or disproving grand ideas has never been Ascher’s style anyway.

If anyone is comfortable living with ambiguity, it’s Ascher. The filmmaker has made a career out of unanswerable questions. 2012’s Room 237 tackled the question of what happens when you treat a work of art as a code to be broken, one that will then yield its secrets to those who know where to look for them. The documentary tracks five obsessive viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as they expound on their interpretations of the film’s hidden layers, elaborating on how it works as a metaphor for the Holocaust, or the genocide of Native Americans, or a confession that Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing. Three years later, Ascher made The Nightmare, which focuses on sleep paralysis, a mysterious condition that leaves people awake but unable to move, and sometimes prone to terrifying hallucinations. It’s a condition Ascher experienced himself, partly in the form of visions of a shadowy, menacing figure. “I was a pretty skeptical person, confronted with what absolutely felt like the supernatural,” Ascher says. “I thought that my paralysis was a result of the supernatural’s power of keeping you there as the figure advanced. I didn’t look at it as a sleep issue, and I only came across an article about it accidentally. When I did, it was a huge weight off my shoulders and it never bothered me again.”

More than anything, however, Ascher’s documentary work focuses on the ways we use the lenses of movies, TV shows, and other aspects of pop culture—especially those that mark us as children—in our attempts to understand the world. His work has an abiding interest in exploring how our interpretive impulses and our interest in art overlap with, and possibly short circuit, each other. And with A Glitch in the Matrix, he’s applied that interest to one of the biggest questions of all: the nature of reality itself.

Ascher first gained attention in the late ’90s at film festivals and on sites like BoingBoing on the strength of his shorts, which made innovative use of digital effects and drew from a deep interest in some obscure corners of the recent past, like the fate of a minor character in the 1985 Charles Bronson movie Death Wish 3. (Some of the shorts were made in partnership with Syd Garon, who contributes animation to A Glitch in the Matrix). But by the end of the 2000s, he wasn’t sure what to do next. “I did some music videos, I had done a couple of short films. Some of them were animated. Some of them were live action. And in many ways, it felt like my career had run its course,” Ascher recalls. “I was about to move away from being an active filmmaker to being a teacher or maybe trying to get a job in advertising.”

Then came “The S From Hell,” a nine-minute film mixing archival footage, dramatic re-creations, animation, and interviews with those haunted by their experiences with a seemingly benign cultural artifact: the Screen Gems logo from the end of ’60s TV productions such as The Flintstones, The Monkees, and Bewitched, a five-second combination of graphic design and Moog music. One interview subject in “The S From Hell” recalls hiding behind the couch to avoid the logo and having nightmares of it chasing her. The film premiered at Sundance in 2010 and provoked a response Ascher had never previously encountered. “I’ve heard from a lot of people after The Nightmare [say], ‘I’ve gone through this.’ ... But I also got those sorts of comments from ‘The S From Hell,’ which I thought kind of strange because in a lot of ways the subject matter is a little silly. Nonetheless, it hit a chord with people.”

From there, Ascher kept exploring the ways pop culture reshapes our notion of reality and, inversely, the ways our sense of reality influences how we look at pop culture. The theses of Room 237’s interview subjects may not stand up to scrutiny, but the film captures how art slips away from its creators the moment it’s released in the wild. Whether Kubrick dressed Danny Torrance in an Apollo 11 sweater as an admission of guilt or not doesn’t matter once the film’s out there for others to read it however they like. The doc also explained how pop culture provides a kind of shared interpretive framework for how we see the world. The Shining’s ubiquity has made it a reference point easy for many to understand as a shorthand for ghosts and haunted places. But it’s also just one entry in a long tradition of scary and otherworldly stories that influence the way we look at the world, whether or not we believe in spirits or aliens. It’s no accident that so many of The Nightmare’s sleep paralysis sufferers experienced visions straight out of horror and science-fiction movies.

In that sense, A Glitch in the Matrix represents a culmination of the past decade of Ascher’s documentary work. The true believers Ascher profiles live their lives believing they’re part of a fictional reality. One speaks of making unexpected choices lest he lose the interest of the player controlling him. Another sees the preponderance of life-threatening near-misses and other “low-probability outcomes” as proof that his existence has been constructed by those determined to keep it interesting.

Simulation theory has many predecessors, from Plato’s cave allegory to Descartes’s illusion-creating demon to Philip K. Dick’s early ’70s vision of a mysterious pink beam that led him to believe he was living in a constructed reality. A Dick speech laying out his theory serves as a kind of chorus throughout A Glitch in the Matrix, but it’s another film deeply indebted to Dick’s work that provides the framework for many of Glitch’s simulation theory subscribers (as well as its title): the Wachowskis’ 1999 blockbuster The Matrix.

A depiction of simulation theory folded into a crowd-pleasing action film, The Matrix helped bring the idea to viewers who might never have considered it before. And where some ran with The Matrix as a metaphor—“I don’t think we even mention the term ‘red pill,’” Ascher notes—others have taken it more literally, using it as a signpost pointing them in the direction of their own versions of simulation theory. Whatever symbolic value there may be to Neo’s recognition that the only world he’s ever known has been created by a computer, The Matrix can also be read at face value as a film about the possibility that the existence viewers know isn’t all that different.

We’re living in a world already destabilized by fake news and possibly destined to be unsettled even more by deepfakes and other reality-blurring advancements. Believing it all to be a simulation can feel like just taking a step in the direction the world is already headed. At the very least, it’s an idea that provides an explanation for some of life’s seemingly inexplicable inconsistencies; sometimes order, no matter what form it takes, is all anyone’s looking for. It’s notable that Ascher had no trouble finding people to interview for a doc about simulation theory. “They found us when we decided to do this,” he says. “We put up a Facebook page and the floodgates opened.”

Changes in culture and technology have helped simulation theory and its variants to take root. One single person mistakenly believing that Nelson Mandela died in the ’80s might not make a dent. But with the advent of an organizing structure like the internet, hundreds (or more) who share the same false memory can find each other and become a community built on a self-reinforcing belief that only they have slipped into an alternate reality.

As in his previous films, Ascher lets his subjects do most of the talking, and they can seem remarkably convincing and charmingly eccentric. There is, unsurprisingly, a dark side to the belief, however, one Ascher doesn’t shy away from exploring. The film’s later segments include a chilling interview with Joshua Cooke, who in 2003 murdered his parents after becoming convinced he was living in The Matrix. Ascher lets Cooke’s description of the murders, and the belief driving them, play at length, accompanied by the same computer animation used to illustrate others’ theories throughout the rest of the film. It’s not graphic, but it is disturbing, and ultimately plays as a warning. Maybe this is the logical end of this way of thinking. What do the rules of reality matter when nothing is real anyway?

The search for meaning and clearly defined answers—and the lengths humans will go to for those things—is at the heart of Ascher’s work. But just as important to him is the role pop culture plays in those quests. The Matrix didn’t arrive unaccompanied in the late ’90s. It was part of a wave of simulation theory–friendly films like Dark City, The Truman Show, and eXistenZ, which in turn inspired more such projects, including some that brought the movement full circle by adapting the work of Philip K. Dick (Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle). To illustrate his subjects’ theories with parallel clips from movies and TV shows, Ascher didn’t have to look far and wide. The examples were all around him, only multiplying in the years since The Matrix’s release.

Culture’s influence on how humans see the world is what connects Ascher’s body of work. We’re all trying to make sense of the world, and oftentimes, movies serve as existential translators—for better and for worse. “Previous generations would use the Bible to explain somebody’s predicament,” Ascher says. “Now people are quoting Star Wars.”

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.