There are words, and many metaphors, one could use to describe simulation theory: the belief, popularized two decades ago by “The Matrix,” that the life we’re living — the people we know, the experiences we have, what we see, touch, think, and feel — is literally an illusion, an artificial façade orchestrated by minds far more developed than our own. You might describe that as a philosophical stance, one that can be traced back to Descartes or even the parable of Plato’s Cave. You could also call it a rabbit hole, a looking glass, or this generation’s acid trip — a chemistry-free way of turning reality inside out.
“A Glitch in the Matrix,” the new documentary directed by Rodney Ascher, who made the thrilling cinehaulic conspiracy-theory deep dive “Room 237” (which was about people who think that hidden messages are encoded in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”), gives each of those metaphors a workout. The movie takes the pulse of how science fiction has merged with our imaginations. It’s got animated sequences that are like puckishly staged video games, and it features an ironic cast of giddy talking-head incels — a total arrested boys’ club, alternately fascinating and annoying. Elon Musk is their tycoon celebrity hero. We see clips of Musk on a talk show saying, “The odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” What his minions don’t understand is that he’s selling himself as an out-of-the-box mod futurist. Elon Musk says reality isn’t real! Whoa! Where can I sign up!? It’s hardly incidental that “The Matrix” starred Keanu Reeves. If “A Glitch in the Matrix” is evidence, simulation theory is now threatening to turn a whole lot of us into Bill and Ted.
Then again, if you really want to unplug from the matrix, you might just go out on a limb and declare the following: that simulation theory, while fun to think about, is basically a crock — a debased product of a fantasy-fixated culture, which encourages people, more and more each day, to project their identities into avatars, to get lost in comic-book video-game worlds they think are “real,” and to regard their own lives as the dull, sad ones they’re stuck inside. (In “The Wizard of Oz,” the black-and-white Kansas sequences are “real,” but it’s the madly colorful action in Oz that’s real.) If you can just pop the right pill, or get to the right website, the truth — that it’s all an illusion! — will be there, and it will set you free. You’ll be one of the anointed, like Neo. And you can chatter with your friends about it from your basement! (I’m talking to you, 45-year-old “Matrix” fanboy and simulation-theory addict.)
Here’s the metaphor the people we meet in “A Glitch in the Matrix” believe: that our lives are a computer simulation, engineered (and controlled) by an advanced civilization. So it’s both a reality theory and an extraterrestrial theory; you could say that the alien cults of the late ’70s and ’80s paved the way for it. But the one who really paved the way for it — who gave it cachet, and a certain scruffy literary cool — was Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction visionary who died in 1982, but not before laying down, in many of his stories and novels, the grand foundations for simulation theory.
How did he come up with it? Simple: He believed it. He thought of his novels as documentaries, in which he was writing down the things he’d glimpsed from an alternate reality more real than our own. “A Glitch in the Matrix” is divided into chapters (“Revelations: Seeing the Code,” “The Kingdom of God: Notes Toward a Digital Theology”), and each one is introduced by a clip of Dick, filmed in 1977 speaking to a roomful of fans in Metz, France. He’s a charismatic geek, with eccentric two-toned facial hair (a dark goatee that suddenly turns white on the cheeks), and he tells the story of how in 1974, after taking sodium pentothal, which he was given to have his wisdom teeth extracted, “I had a short, acute flash of recovered memory.” He called the experience 2-3-74, and what he glimpsed was the dystopian underbelly of America — another world, parallel to our own, that would soon take over, because it was real. And only he could see it.
One is tempted to say that Dick, under the influence of sodium pentothal, experienced a schizophrenic break. It has never been fully documented that he had that diagnosis, but his paranoia, his devout belief in his delusions, and his tendency to scribble them down in multi-thousand-word manifestos are classic hallmarks of the schizophrenic mind. On some level, the belief in simulation theory is every insane homeless person on the sidewalk who thinks he’s talking to Neptune through a tin can. But Dick, at his best, gave a pulp-poetic form to his unhinged passion — the androids with feelings, the nightmares hovering just out of sight. And “The Matrix,” while it wasn’t a Dick adaptation, took his ideas and pumped them up into a new kind of mythology. Simulation theory, says the film, is now “fiercely debated online and IRL, in classrooms, laboratories, design studios, and courtrooms.” It has grown and metastasized. Kind of like QAnon.
The film’s “witnesses” deliver their testimonials in digital disguise, transformed into jewel-headed metallic creatures who look like characters out of some cheesy virtual-reality thriller from the early ’90s. One is an ordained minister, one is a pastor’s son, and one is a dude who did nothing for years but work at Chili’s and play video games. For all of them, simulation theory is a religion. These are the kinds of people who believe that coronavirus could be a PSYOP. Who say things like “I think what they want us to do it to improve upon the simulation they already made.” Who really need to get out more.
They’re quite articulate, but what their words suggest is that those who are drawn to simulation theory, to believing that their own lives aren’t real, are people with detachment issues. They look around and desire a life that’s lurking behind the one they have. One of them, Joshua Cooke, is more extreme than that. He became a “Matrix” obsessive, watching it hundreds of times, treating his leather trench coat as if it were a living being, and finally convincing himself that if nothing is real, it’s okay for him to shoot his parents. His description of that act, heard on the soundtrack, is chilling.
I loved “Room 237” because it sucked me in. That’s what good conspiracy theory does: It makes you think, Could this be true? Maybe…. “A Glitch in the Matrix,” by contrast, never produces a “Whoa” moment. I think that’s because Rodney Ascher, as a filmmaker, sees right through simulation theory, yet he wants to show us — almost warn us — how prevalent it’s becoming. It truly is a cousin to QAnon, another belief system that posits our own world as a masquerade. Which makes you wonder why Ascher never mentions “red-pilling,” a “Matrix” reference that tends to describe people having an alt-right awakening: Suddenly, they see through feminism and the lies of the liberal media (like, you know, the illusion that Joe Biden won the election). The more you look at the Capitol rioters, the more you see how they unplugged from the matrix of rationality.
But the larger story here — in “A Glitch in the Matrix,” it’s one that transcends left-vs.-right ideologies — is that more and more people in our culture are beholden to visions so removed from reality that it doesn’t seem extreme to say that those visions amount to a collective mental illness. The difference is, it’s not a detachment from reality that comes from the inside; it’s a detachment from reality that comes from the outside — from the culture at large, from fantasy entertainment that bleeds into delusional politics that bleeds into the belief that existence itself is a mere mirage. Of course, you could also say to the people who hold that belief: That’s just what they want you to think.