What if the world we know is just a simulation? The question is syntactically short. The answer(s) trigger head-on crashes at the intersection of speculative science and existential dread. 

These ideas form the center of A Glitch in the Matrix, the latest must-see high-concept work from documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher that premieres Friday, Feb. 5 on VOD services. In 2012’s Room 237, Ascher daisy-chained disembodied voices espousing disparate theories about wild subtexts within Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Slowly and subtly, it embedded itself like a sliver in the subconscious, trapping viewers at a disconcerting overlap of art and obsession. Three years later, The Nightmare offered an effective, horror-informed examination of the medical condition of sleep paralysis and the psychological connotations of the terrors we carry with us.

In Glitch, the pontifications and ruminations on simulation theory are not merely an ontological onslaught — even as some discussions teeter toward doctorate-level domain of the Architect’s monologue in The Matrix Reloaded. Neither do they turn tautological, as Ascher tackles more offshoots of this theory than even the most open-minded among us may have believed possible, entertaining or intellectually engaging. And although Ascher playfully disguises some folks who’d rather not put real faces or names to their beliefs, he’s also not mocking them. Glitch is foremost a story of anthropology, not animosity or abuse, and as it dissects the darkest outcomes of believing we are just zeroes and ones, its empathy for mankind rings clear.

To address the idea of our existence as a simulation, Ascher intermixes interviews with “eyewitnesses” and experts. The latter group includes Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom — whose article “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” has had an unsurprisingly long tail — and scholars of Philip K. Dick, whose 1977 presentation “If You Think This World is Bad, You Should See the Others” is featured in chapter-break segments. In this talk, Dick outlined his fragmentary visual memories of a “very different present life” after receiving sodium pentathol for a dental procedure. The experience informed his popular fiction but also The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, a work of nonfiction that pieced together his journaled chronicles of these visions and memories as “an antechamber of despair” (as one editor puts it). 

With Dick as an intermediary, Glitch introduces just as many fascinatingly unanswered questions as the ones it directly addresses, such as: Did our future come to look like movies based on Dick’s fiction because he correctly predicted society’s movements … or did the future look like those movies because millions of innovative young minds absorbed their aesthetics and made them reality? And what of those who rendered visual Dick’s written words, which is to say the dozens of screenwriters, directors and producers over the years whom he inspired?

The “eyewitnesses” include: Paul Gude, who believes he briefly entered the center of the simulation during a church service when he was a young boy; Jesse Orion, an artist who gave literal years of his life over to only playing video games and believes there are, in life as in gaming, NPCs (non-player characters) with limited roles, actions and dialogues; and Brother Laeo Mystwood, who relays a mind-altering experience inside a flotation tank and shares the anomalies he has tracked on spreadsheets each week (which he defines as 12-day periods). “When someone says it’s a small world, they’re not kidding,” one subject says. “There’s literally not enough processing power to run seven billion consciences. So the idea of six degrees of separation is merely a flaw in a system able to power only a couple hundred-thousand consciences at any one time.”

Glitch dramatizes these individuals’ encounters with the simulation infrastructure, as they interpret it, in animation segments that key into both the color of the stories told and the storytellers’ psyches. Some backdrops feel like scaffolds of self-identity, the animation team draws unexpectedly expressive gestures from purposefully depersonalized characters, and one subject’s implausible survival of a car crash is interpreted as “a hand on the scale” in an unnerving way. There’s also impish sound design and immersive music from Jonathan Snipes, who causes certain dialogue to twitch and drop out like a Nine Inch Nails dirge at key moments.

In the back half, Ascher emphasizes porous borders between our pop-culture obsessions and real-world ramifications. From Defending Your Life to Minecraft, it’s stunning to realize just how many pieces of entertainment have overtly or abstractly given themselves over to simulation theory. Ascher largely hones in on The Matrix, the big daddy of all pop-culture texts on the matter (although Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he notes, is the great-great-grandaddy). 

“So if I’m a random sparking of cells … OK. That doesn’t change my day to day,” one subject says about his ongoing approach to life. But Ascher also faces down the nihilism and detachment that can take root, the ease with which simulation theory lets us excuse our worst impulses, and how media portrayals can “other” entire populations into a perception that they are NPCs — virtually indistinguishable in the mind from digital, disposable bodies. Ascher brings all of this to an unforgettable head, animating one participant’s narrated tale of irreversible tragedy related to a Matrix experience. It’s profoundly unsettling but also depicts the experience without escalating it to exploitation. Shafts of light blinker out and colors pulsate, contributing to what will stand as one of 2021’s most chillingly rendered sequences at year’s end. And yet Ascher is also careful to not demonize a film that has been a Rosetta Stone for so many people over the last 22 years — who discovered their true selves, goals and inspirations through elements that The Matrix makes explicit or leaves implicit.

At times, Glitch nearly reaches philosophical nirvana of such Werner Herzog documentaries as Encounters at the End of the World or Grizzly Man. There’s perhaps a bit too much cheek in some of the concluding animated renderings that hold it back. But Ascher similarly keeps the rope guide cinched tight around his waist as he pulls us higher up the mountain. Ultimately, Glitch doesn’t try to persuade or dissuade on simulation theory, instead illustrating it as a therapeutic method people adopt to escape complexities of human existence, how they wrestle with resultant loneliness, isolation and trauma, and how they don’t always win those clashes. In the parlance of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, you won’t regret seeing just how deep Glitch’s rabbit hole goes.