People who’re seriously down the rabbit hole on any given subject are fascinating specimens, and often make for engrossing magazine profiles, book-length studies or documentary dissections.
Chess fans or “The Shining” fanatics, Scrabble buffs or orchid thieves, we never tire of taking a hard or merely wry look at those who only come up for air to share a bit of their obsession with we merely curious mere mortals.
Rewatching Rodney Ascher‘s “Room 237,” about seriously absorbed close-readers of Stanley Kubrick’s film of Steven King’s “The Shining,” I wondered how many of those interviewed in it, those on the conspiracy buff end of the spectrum, have been institutionalized since that film came out in 2012?
With “A Glitch in the Matrix,” Ascher’s found another subculture from pop culture to dive into, people who have taken a thought experiment a lot further than most of us would deem sane — “What if humanity and the whole of our existence is but a vast, complex computer simulation?”
It’s been kicked around a lot over the decades, and with people like tech genius Elon Musk and America’s Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson giving it lip service or credence, fans of the “The Matrix” movies have started to extrapolate that maybe these twenty year old films are holy text, a warning or at least a hint of what might really be going on.
Ascher’s documentary is a deeper dive than most of us would ever care to take into this, filled with testimonials from those so obsessed and paranoid that they prefer to be interviewed as digitally-animated avatars, or speak by phone from the prison where they’re being held for murdering their adoptive parents.
But it’s fascinating as a deconstruction of pop culture history and way of looking at how thinkers have looked at the world, from Plato’s parable about “The Cave” to the entire canon of sci-fi writer, futurist and in the end, madman Philip K. Dick.
Using snippets from panel discussions Tesla/Space X mogul Musk participated in, clips from the many movies and series made from Philip K. Dick’s stories (“Blade Runner,” “A Scanner Darkly,” “Minority Report,” “The Man in the High Castle”), fresh interviews with academics, thinkers and video-game junkies deep into what I’d call a “digital theology,” Ascher ponders the thesis Musk presented publicly and echoes in frequent half-winking tweets.
At some point, Musk says, extrapolating the sprinting advancement of video games from Pong to whatever VR sim world fans are deepest into today, “games will become indistinguishable from reality.” And others, echoing that, suggest the nature of technological civilizations might be that at some point, we get tired of doing things andf lose ourselves in play-acting/simulating that we or avatars we create and control are doing them.
Yes, that’s the premise of a few “Star Trek” episodes. But what if it’s already happened and some advanced entity, computer or civilization is running one and we’re in it?
The more fancifully-inclined interviewed here scrutinize the “synchronicities” in their lives — little coincidences that suggest to them that a computer is reading their thoughts and extrapolating scenarios that foretell a relationship renewed or a next meal you didn’t realize you craved.
The anchor voice in “Glitch” is the mysterious Dick himself, appearing at a 1977 French symposium and giving a speech about how “we’re living in a computer-programmed reality,” how his dreams and snatches of what he recalls from being under anesthesia tipped him to this “reality” and informed his seriously out-there fiction.
“If you think this world is bad,” he famously joked, “you should see some of the others,” implying that he’s seen them, if not actually visited them.
Some have taken that long (with longer pauses for translation) speech as proof of Dick’s growing paranoia and mental illness. But this Big Idea was out there already, and not just in classic “Trek” episodes. Douglas Adams conceived his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in the early spring of 1977. a radio series that morphed into books, a TV series and a feature film (sampled in “Glitch”), comical fiction which suggested that the Earth was a multi-million year science experiment, conceived by a computer, to come up with the Meaning of Life. “Tron” went inside a video game and gave characters digital lives there.
“The Matrix” movies absorbed that from the zeitgeist, folded it into a video game or digital simulation that Keanu and Carrie Anne, Laurence and Hugo performed, lived and died in and fought to escape.
And some people, like the “Glitch” subject interviewed by phone with the unmistakable sounds of a prison in the background, used that “reality” to try and explain their descent into murderous madness.
I found the “Matrix” movies eventually-tedious eye candy when they came out, but “A Glitch in the Matrix” succeeds in making the argument that they could be as appealing as “Avatar” or “Star Wars” as a universe and way of thinking one could lose himself (all of the obsessives interviewed here are guys) in.
“Glitch” becomes as repetitious as “The Matrix” in its own right, and some of this can’t help but come off as a filmmaker indulging the slightly or greatly deranged…again.
But the documentary, like the idea behind it, makes for a fascinating thought experiment. And a few years down the road, maybe it’ll be worth revisiting to wonder if more than one interview subject has wound up in an institution.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations, discussions of violence
Cast: Nick Bostrom, Joshua Cooke, Erik Davis, Paul Gude, Elon Musk, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Philip K. Dick.
Credits: Directed by Rodney Ascher. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:48