Filmmaker Rodney Ascher has made a career out of exploring the extremes of the human experience, from the hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in Room 237 (2012) to the terrifying reality of sleep paralysis in The Nightmare (2015). For his latest film, A Glitch in the Matrix, Ascher delves into simulation theory, speaking to those who believe we are living in a computer programme. Here, he explains why this most science fiction of subjects has a very human heart. 

Simulation theory is a fascinating subject; how did you come across it?

While I was making The Nightmare, I spoke to someone who had experienced all sorts of visions while undergoing sleep paralysis. He thought the things he was seeing were actually a look beyond the simulation; almost like that scene in The Matrix (1999) where Neo [Keanu Reeves] can see the ones and zeroes raining down. That’s what introduced the idea to me and once it got on my radar, it never left. Then I noticed people talking about it more, and it began to make sense as another one of my projects in which I try to widen the lens and explore the bigger mysteries that people are trying to understand.

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The people you speak to in the documentary are all very open about their beliefs; how did you find them?

The academics, the quote-unquote experts, are people we approached based on things that I had read or knew about them. But the 4 eyewitnesses, as we called them, are all people who found us. We announced that we were making the movie and set up a place where people could reach us, and then the floodgates were open. We were paging through story after story, trying to pick the right balance that would be satisfying and hit the subject from quite a few angles. 

One thing that’s obvious is that the vast majority of your interviewees, including all the eyewitnesses, are male. Was this reflective of the people who reached out to you?

It certainly reflects the breakdown of people who reached out to us. The majority were men, as opposed to those who contacted us for The Nightmare, where it was half and half. I’m still trying to get my head around the question of whether we might have done a better job of reaching out to other people, or whether it says something about the fact that these are the folk that the idea resonates strongest with.

Do you think perhaps that men are more confident in talking about this extreme theory. Women may be more afraid of opening themselves up to ridicule or abuse?

That’s completely possible. I was talking with one of the film’s participants at virtual Sundance this year, and he was wondering if he did feel more confident about sharing his story from his relative position of privilege. And it’s also been suggested that there might have been a path that could have been explored more deeply [in the film], which is the fact that simulation is in some ways a sexless creation theory. And if the tech industry is dominated by guys, then maybe there’s something comforting about believing that the person who created the world is more like you. I always wind up with more questions when the film is over than I had when we began!

Rodney Ascher

All of your eyewitnesses talk so confidently about their experiences but are represented by avatars. Was this a creative decision or a question of anonymity?

It was a creative decision that I’d made before we interviewed anybody, as a way of talking about where modern creations are going and the weirdness that we’re experiencing as we merge different layers of digital unreality. My son plays a lot of video games; for him, they are not just activities to be performed but places to go. I see him and his friends having these very mundane fifth-grader conversations, but they are coming out of the mouths of these fantastical electronic creatures. So for the film I wanted the quality of talking to video game characters on their days off.

You made your documentary before the COVID-19 pandemic; have you had any conversations with your eyewitnesses about what the disease means in the context of simulation theory?

I have spoken to most of them after the pandemic, but wasn’t sure if it was ever going to be part of the film. I didn’t want it to seem in terrible taste. [None of the conversations made it into the documentary]. I was astonished to hear that something similar happened in World of Warcraft a few years ago; there was a glitch with a character called an energy vampire that meant it could infect pets in the game and they could spread the disease. And the players broke down into different categories: people with healing powers would try and cure others, some were quarantining behind castle walls, and other folks would raise hell. Epidemiologists have been studying this so-called “corrupted blood plague” in WoW as a model for how contagions can spread. 

The other way to look at it is perhaps there’s an epidemic in the real world outside of the simulation, so they have created 100 worlds with slightly different variables and are waiting to see if any of those worlds come up with a cure.

You decided not to include references to COVID-19, but the film does feature the story of Joshua Cooke, a troubled young man who believed he was living in a simulation and murdered his parents in 2003. Why was this included?

It was important to talk about the potential dangers of this kind of thinking. If you’re talking about simulation theory as a theory, it allows you to talk about all sorts of issues. But if you’re taking it literally, one of the first forks in the road that you come to is what does that mean about other people? Simulation theory could make you think that there are fewer consequences to your actions, and the whole idea of “non-player characters” could make you think that other people are not valuable or important. That can have extraordinary consequences. So after about an hour of the film navel gazing and speculating about these things, I thought it was important to draw attention to the real world dangers.

Joshua has written a book that covers a lot of the same territory. He’s made it his mission to reach out to troubled kids and stop them from repeating his mistakes. So he’s very open to talking about what he went through as a cautionary tale.

Throughout the animated sequence of Josh’s story, and the film as a whole, the score from Jonathan Snipes beautifully captures both the sci-fi elements of simulation theory and the humanity at its heart. What was your brief to him?

This is the fifth or sixth project we’ve done together, and now we have fewer big, heavy talks because we understand how each other works. He is able to capture this cyber horror vibe, but also get at some of the more introspective and tragic and ultra-human moments as well.

The music for the sequence of the guy who stole the plane [believing he could pilot it after playing hundreds of hours of video games] is a kind of reworking of a hymn; sonically, there is an airiness and a sadness to it. It’s coming through these synthesised coaches that he created; human voices and words coming through these electronic creations. And he does all the sound design as well, so all the sonic elements of the movie are coming through one hand, one sensibility.

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

Have your feelings about simulation theory changed during the making of the film? Is there anything to the belief that we are living in some form of artificial matrix?

I originally thought I was going to talk about it more as a literal thing, but I came to understand it as a metaphor through the course of the film.The question is if we’re living in a digitally created world in a giant computer, created by aliens or our own culture somewhere in the future, that poses the question of what value has the simulation? If this is the world that we’ve been born into, and that we will die in, and all our family, friends, enemies and peers are in it as well, surely it isn’t really a simulation? 

The theory, I think, comes from a need to refine reality, so it’s not actually just a chemical reaction; it’s zeroes and ones. And without any tools for hacking the code, or cheat codes that you can type in to give yourself extraordinary abilities, I think it simply gives me more language to talk about the world, and try to understand what we’re doing here.