A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

FEBRUARY 5, 2021


(No, this is not a "horror movie". But it's creepy and terrifying all the same, and I don't have anywhere else to write right now, so don't give me any crap about it!)

On the floor in my bedroom is a Christmas card from 2019 (not a typo); it's one of many things in the house that aren't exactly where they should be, but fell or whatever at one point and isn't bothering anything, so no one bothers to pick it up. I pass by it every day and think "I should clean up," but then I continue doing whatever it is I was doing and forget about it until the next day when I see it again. It's something I thought about at a key point in Rodney Ascher's A Glitch in the Matrix, a new documentary that tackles the growing (and in some cases, somewhat convincing!) theories that we are perhaps not flesh and blood human beings, but - like Neo in The Matrix prior to swallowing the pill - just avatars in a simulation run by some higher power.

"What does that have to do with some trash on your floor?" you're asking. Well, one of the talking heads explains how video games work at one point; how everything we see is just ones and zeroes and, when the situation of the game changes, the bits of data that are a flower at one point are later rearranged to become a person. As video game consoles and PC get stronger and faster, the games are able to have more things on screen at once, and will load faster when you enter new areas, and you don't really think much of it beyond "this is still too slow" or "this is so much faster!" as the machine does exactly what that guy described: changing flowers into people, generally speaking.

"...WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH YOUR TRASH!?" I'm getting there, relax, hypothetical reader! OK, so, I don't think about the stupid card every time I enter the room and see it on the floor, right? If we're in a simulation, I have to assume at some point the computer will have reused those bits of data to make something else and will eventually just stop taking time out of its day to recreate the damn thing on my floor every day, because by now, after it's been there for months, it's obviously not something I'm ever going to bother to do, and furthermore if it were to just disappear one day I wouldn't think much of that either. I'll assume my wife picked it up, and by the time I'm ten steps away I'll have forgotten that it was ever there.


I'm also playing Breath of the Wild finally, and like anyone who has played that game knows, it is constantly throwing other things at you to check out, including silly side quests that might take an hour and net you nothing but some food to eat. But I fancy myself a completist (at least for named subquests I start; I probably won't have the patience to find every goddamn Korok seed) and at one point I found the item that the person wanted, returning to the town to give it to them. Once I did that, they moved on and, best as I can tell, never returned to that spot that they had apparently been hanging out in for how many virtual days as I fought monsters, climbed towers, etc without caring much that they put their little virtual life on hold until I returned.

...so what if the damn card is a "side quest" I need to "complete" before I can get rid of it? What if the game overlords are leaving that innoccuous (and probably not particularly large, data-wise!) item there until I pick it up, regardless of how many other things I have done with my life since I first noticed it?

This long-winded pair of anecdotes illustrates the driving force behind Ascher's doc, in that even though it seems completely ridiculous to think we're all avatars in the biggest game of Sims ever constructed, our video games are increasingly making it easier to understand how people can believe in it, and also - though your mileage will vary here - easier to believe in it yourself. While the title suggests that the Wachowskis film will be heavily featured (not unlike The Shining in Ascher's Room 237), I was surprised to discover it was just as reliant on other movies and quite a bit of video games. In the first 50 minutes or so, we see just as much footage from Impostor (!) as The Matrix, as the former was based on Philip K. Dick and his stories (and subsequent film adaptations) form the basis of a lot of these theories.

But it's the game examples that really prove to be eye-opening. There's a clip from Red Dead Redemption 2 that shows how the NPCs are just going about their own lives and will make choices that have almost nothing to do with the player's actions, and like my Zelda example you get the impression that if the player were to just sit in one of the game's saloons or something they could watch little stories unfold within the virtual world. This, in the same medium that has allowed people to "break" games like Pac-Man because the (four) ghosts move along set patterns that can be memorized. It's been less than forty years between the two things, so how far will they come in another forty years? And when we see it, will it really be so hard to buy the idea that we might be in such a game ourselves? If a criminal loves to return to the scene of the crime or taunt the police in hopes of getting caught, wouldn't the same logic apply here? That the puppet masters program people to make these games (and docs like Ascher's - and yes this is addressed in the film) as a way of tipping their hat to see if we can figure it out?

Don't worry, I'm not about to buy into it. Right now on my wall there's a little dent, and a spot where they did a lousy job repainting over a crack or something from the previous tenant, and those are the sort of things that I can't imagine any "dev" bothering to include when there's a strong chance I might have never noticed them - it'd just be a normal, unremarkable wall. Yes, it's weird when you think of a song that you haven't heard for a while and then it's on the radio, and I had a "glitch" experience myself (before the movie even came out in 1999)*, but I lean towards this being a biproduct of the brain being something that we have yet to fully understand, combined with the uncertainty and randomness of how we connect as human beings. And my religious upbringing throws another wrench in the works - maybe God does those things just to let us know they're listening, even if - as we are shown every damn day, especially THESE days - they opt not to intervene with what happens down here.

On that note, religion doesn't factor too much into the film's theories and explanations; it's brought up of course, but never really dwelled on. Instead, Ascher focuses on some specific examples of people who not only believe they're in a simulation, but are actually fine with it. While it can lead to dangerous situations (one interviewee is phoned in from prison, as they murdered their parents thinking it was just a game), these guys are for the most part sort of zen about it. He also covers their appearance in game like avatars, an odd choice that actually ends up working quite well, especially when they do mundane human actions like scratch an elbow or look off to the side when trying to clarify what they're saying. It can be slightly distracting at times, but I got used to it far quicker than I expected I would when first presented with the image of some Dark Souls-y armored guy yammering about simululation theory.

The film runs just under 110 minutes, but honestly could have run for hours or even days; I do not envy the editors and Ascher working to get what was probably a surplus of fascinating interview footage into something manageable (especially when you account for the addition of film clips and animation eating into the runtime). It has inspired me to read up on the topic (feel free to recommend any notable books in the comments!), but more importantly it has gotten me to not write off the idea as such nonsense as I have in the past. Again, I still don't believe in it, but if you told me five years ago that we'd have a President that got banned on Twitter for encouraging a coup that failed, I wouldn't have believed that either. The movie hits VOD today, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ascher's other films (I think it might be his best?), but even more I recommend it to people who think the idea is completely ludicrous. Challenging one's beliefs and opening your mind to other ways of thinking - even if you don't ultimately feel the same way - is what makes us human. The people that are fine with never learning anything new are like those ghosts in Pac-Man: an example of someone's limitations being something someone else can exploit for their own gain.

And yes, I just picked up the card.

What say you?

*Back in college, I was on my way to get my mail one day when I noticed my friend come out of her dorm, with an unfamiliar man exiting the same door about fifty feet behind her. I didn't think too much of it (I only noticed the man because I didn't recognize him, and these dorm buildings were fairly small so I knew all the residents, but he also looked too young to be anyone's dad) until I returned from my errand, only a few minutes later, and saw the same friend followed by the same man exiting the same door once again. It freaked me out but good, and then a month or two later when I saw the Matrix I had my own "whoa" moment thinking about the similarities. But, you know, it was probably that she forgot something and the unfamiliar guy was a repairman who was going back and forth to his truck for parts.


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