“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Philip K. Dick
Rodney Ascher’s mind-bending documentary explores the question ‘Are we living in a computer simulation?’ – an ontological conundrum posited by Simulation Theory. He weaves together interviews from individuals who fully believe they are living a Matrix-style construct, with experts. Many of these are portrayed in avatar form, but within their own homes – like Zoom calls from Second Life. And their anecdotes and theories are dramatised through, appropriately, computer animation. This is oddly retro, and the effect is somewhere between Tron, The Lawnmower Man and Max Headroom. Liberally interspersed throughout are clips from science fiction movies, many of which happen to be adaptations of the novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick, the godfather of this strange realm. His famous interview from Paris, 1977, in which he revealed his belief that we are living in said simulation, is used to introduce each section. To provide some intellectual perspective on it all, there is a talking head interview with the Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, who is one of the few portrayed in the flesh, but who actually comes across rather stilted, indeed like a glitching avatar at times. His much-cited ‘simulation hypothesis’ article is seen as a seminal text in this field. There is a disturbing testimony from an inmate of a maximum security prison who, as a 19 year old man, murdered his parents because he thought he was in the ‘Matrix’, self-identifying with Neo from the Wachowski Brothers movies. This is presented as the only sobering correlative to these (tellingly all male) advocates or devotees. A solitary female academic suggests that a lack of erotic or emotional life creates the disconnect from an embodied reality – an entropic solipsism, which computer games and social media endlessly fuels. Yet beyond this is, there is no real exegesis or critical interpretation. Ashchew presents us with these oddballs as though they are specimens in a virtual zoo, and it reminded me a little of Nick Park’s Oscar-winning short ‘Creature Comforts’, in which interviews with normal people were dubbed onto stop-motion plasticine animals in their enclosures. Here, the ‘brains-in-a-vat’ speak from within their CGI ‘suits’, and the effect is disembodied, adding a layer of cognitive estrangement to it as in the rotoscope animation of Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’, both of which have more substance. Ascher’s documentary is certainly visually interesting, and thought-provoking – but feels strangely shallow for a something ostensibly exploring the nature of reality. It provides a gateway drug, at best, to those who wish to go deeper into the works of PKD, or other writers on Simulation Theory.
Kevan Manwaring, 5 February 2021
A Glitch in the Matrix – released 5 February, 2021