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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: A Glitch in the Matrix

Rodney Ascher’s new film intrigues superficially

The press notes provided to The Aggie for this review read: “If director Rodney Ascher is interviewing you, chances are you’re obsessed with something.” This seems to be basically true, going by “A Glitch in the Matrix” and “Room 237” (Ascher’s debut). Both films are chock-full of interviews with people of questionable expertise who speculate wildly about whatever topic is at hand; In “Room 237,” it’s reading way, way too far into Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and in “A Glitch in the Matrix” it’s simulation theory—the idea that reality as we know it is a simulation created by a species far more advanced than ourselves.

These press notes also revere Ascher for knowing what “creepypasta” is, which doesn’t seem terribly out of character for him considering how much of this film is dedicated to strangers from the internet hypothesising way out of their pay-grade and clips of Elon Musk on YouTube waving off discourse around simulation theory with cool declarations like “of course we’re in a simulation.”

There’s a surprising amount of breadth present for a film that appears on the surface to have a narrow subject: interviews with Reddit narcissists eventually give way to interwoven segments on Philip K. Dick’s intellectual downward spiral and, for the film’s penultimate section, a lengthy interview with the “Matrix Killer,” who in 2003 shot his parents out of (he claims) a belief that he was inside the simulated world of the 1999 action flick. 

While the directions taken are interesting (to varying degrees), it often feels as if the film has its priorities misaligned: a special education teacher who believes everyone but him is a “non-player character” gets several times as much screen time as Nick Bostrom, who actually wrote the paper that formalized simulation theory. Philosophically detailed perspectives on the matter seem to take a back seat to general speculation that’s often not as convincing as the movie seems to think it is. The account of Philip K. Dick’s exegesis, too, is announced more than it’s genuinely explored—a product of the strange decision to cut up his speech and experiences across the film rather than localizing them to a single section.

The film also constantly edges between curiosity and silliness, tossing the viewer back and forth between thought-provoking ideas and B-roll of “Minecraft” worlds and questionable computer graphics.

The computer graphics shouldn’t go without note either. It’s distracting and unconvincing, usually comprising reconstructions of interviewees’ stories or punctuating topics with imagery that’s probably supposed to be mysterious and interesting, but could be best described as wince-worthy. It’s possible that these sections are supposed to be cheap looking in order to evoke some kind of cobbled neo-digital aesthetic, but the final product is the same regardless of intention: it’s more reminiscent of old-school machinima than anything that belongs in a serious feature film.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” isn’t without its merits, however. It is, at times, captivating in its construction, and some of what’s presented is worthy of attention. It does manage to craft some essence of intrigue through its broad scope and sometimes strange choices of interviewee, and in some of the more bizarre production choices—such as many interviewees being replaced with motion-tracked digital avatars—a germ of charm can be found. Ascher certainly can’t be faulted for making a film that’s overly traditional or boring. And trying something new is never a bad thing, whether or not there are stumbles along the way.

Independent of its faults, Ascher’s style of documentary is fast, interesting and free of the sludge and faux-objectivity of tradition. What “A Glitch in the Matrix” demonstrates is that this style opens the possibility of new errors as much as boons. 

Written by: Jacob Anderson — arts@theaggie.org

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