A Glitch In The Matrix. (12A.)
Directed by Rodney Ascher.
Featuring Nick Bostrom, Emily Pothast, Eric Davis, Joshua Cooke, Jesse Orion and Chris Ware. Available from Dogwoof on Demand and other VOD platforms from February 5th. 108 mins.
Released in 1999, The Matrix would prove to be the 20th century's most pernicious film. Crossbreeding wide eyed post-war counterculture delusions with dead eyed Guns & Ammo fantasies and a touch of Lewis Carroll whimsy, it was a trojan malware planted into the circuitry of the American and western psyche. Once triggered by 9/11, the gradual traumatic unhinging took hold and spread unchecked. As the events on Capital Hill demonstrated, The Matrix took escapist fantasy to undreamt-of levels.
But that's only partially what Ascher's documentary is about. His previous film, Room 237, was people offering wild interpretation of, and reading hidden meanings into, Kubrick's The Shining. Here though people are taking a film on face value: exploring the possibility that, just like Keanu Reeves, the reality we are living in is actually a simulation. As such The Matrix is just an instrument that brought more mainstream attention to an idea that dates back to Plato and Descartes.
More than the Wachowskis' film, the film's chief reference point is a scratchy VHS recording of a 1977 address given by Philip K. Dick in Metz, France, where he talks about having had access 3 years earlier to lateral realities. "We are living in a computer-programmed reality and the only clue we have is when some variable is changed and some alteration in our reality occurs." In 1977 Dick was considered crazy. After the Matrix, he was a visionary. Now, Elon Musk can talk about existence being a simulation and the one in the billion probability that this is Base Reality, without any dent to his net worth.
(When K. Dick died, a few weeks before the release of Blade Runner, I believe he was virtually unknown outside of hard sci-fi circles. Ridley Scott's film adaptation of his book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep was given a title taken from the writings of William S. Burroughs. Four decades later Kindred D's cultural influence has total supplanted that of Seward B.)
From these starting points, Ascher's film is a wide-ranging, visually intense exploration of various aspects of the topic. When not engaged in face to face interviews the film is a splatter gun of visual stimuli, a manic montage of clips from movies, Youtube and computer games. Getting all the clearances for their use must've been a nightmare. We can argue about the degree to which this bombardment is distraction or illustration, but it's certainly compelling.
The people being interviewed are divided into two categories in the credits: Eyewitnesses and Expert Testimony. The first are people who claim to have experienced revelations of the simulated existence and they are distinguished from the scientist and writers by appearing as outlandish avatars. This may protect their identities but also has the effect of dividing the cast into nutters and non-nutters. However valid the testimony, when it is being delivered by a shimmering red-maned lion in armour and a sword, it loses a bit of credence.
As with Room 237, Ascher's film gives us little indication about how seriously to take the ideas being expanded, but you'd need to be an organism akin to plankton not to be just a little bit inspired and intrigued by the religious and philosophical ideas explored. Chilled too. Whether reality is real or simulated is becoming largely irrelevant because the human race is increasingly unhooking itself from it and the results are often terrifying. The film contain a sequences where a then teenager addicted to The Matrix describes killing his parents because he's convinced that they're not real. But that's just one example of how behaviour is changing as reality becomes open to negotiable, a commodity dependent on consumer choice.
We're tuned in, turned on and dropped ourselves right in it.