The Creepy New Doc 'A Glitch in The Matrix' Dares to Ask: Are We Living in a Simulation?

Rodney Ascher's new documentary, which premiered at Sundance and is now out on VOD, considers the reality of simulation theory.

Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

Director Rodney Ascher was attending a VR party, using an Oculus headset, at this year’s largely virtual Sundance Film Festival when he was asked a question about his new documentary that he found “pretty ridiculous,” given the context. His latest mind-blower, A Glitch in the Matrix that’s out in theaters and on VOD February 5, is an exploration of simulation theory, the notion that we are living in a virtual world. In addition to talking to experts and delving into the pop culture that reflects this viewpoint, Ascher speaks with subjects who subscribe to this belief. Instead of depicting their faces, Ascher worked with comic book artist Chris Burnham to design avatars for them, so they appear on screen as bulbous creatures and mechanical beings. A critic asked: Why did he chose to depict the talking heads in this form?

“He was a two and a half foot space alien with unblinking eyes, and I was a mummy,” Ascher recalls. Of course, there was a creative reason for the decision: It allowed Ascher to put his subjects into reenactments without casting other humans. But so many people, whether you engage with simulation theory or not, lives at least somewhat virtually these days. “It’s kind of playing with the contrast of reality and unreality in digital communications,” Ascher says. Eventually, when watching the film, you start to forget that these are outlandish avatars, the same way you may start to recognize people by their Bitmoji or Memoji saved in your phone. He uses certain pieces of culture (pop and otherwise) as guideposts throughout the film. One is a speech that the sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick-responsible for the likes of Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle-gave in 1977 outlining his belief in the existence of computer-programmed reality. Another is Plato’s allegory of the cave. Elon Musk’s affirmation of simulation theory is referenced. And, of course, there’s The Matrix.

Despite the title, Ascher was not interested in making a Room 237 but for The Matrix. “I was mostly looking for ways The Matrix introduced people’s ideas about simulation theory more than their experience of it as a film,” he says. Rather than going through Neo’s journey, he let his interviewees pick out what spoke to them about the story. One, for instance, connects more to The Animatrix rather than the original trilogy. 

The Wachowskis’ film is a tether to A Glitch in the Matrix‘s most disturbing sequence: An interview with Joshua Cooke, whose murder of his parents in 2003 is an example of “The Matrix defense,” which would rule the defendant insane due to his notion that The Matrix was, in fact, real. (Cooke ended up pleading guilty.) Cooke describes both his attraction to The Matrix and, in detail, the night in which he committed his crimes. While initially Ascher considered making Cooke one of the avatars, the story was so “harrowing” that he felt it would be in bad taste. So instead, Ascher at his team recreated Cooke’s home using photogrammetry software.

“The camera floats through as if it’s his eyes, but there are no humans in it,” Ascher explains. “It’s just almost looking at the house after this has happened. Maybe it was trying to suggest what it was like for him to reflect back on this again and again on this. Part of the photogrammetry process is imperfect, so we loved the errors and the glitches in it.” 

Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures

Ascher always had The Matrix defense on what he describes as his “big whiteboard of topics within simulation theory” he wanted to cover, but he was surprised how many of the people he spoke with wanted to bring up the ethics of the topic. Cooke’s story throws those discussions into relief. “At a certain point, talking about simulation theory can be navel-gazing, pie in the sky, stoner, dorm room philosophizing,” Ascher explains. “So the idea of, in a very raw and real and human way, visualizing what the real stakes are of that disconnect from reality, especially since it’s especially apparent these days, it’s probably always happening, that thinking of some people as less than others or disagreeing about basic facts has led to all sort of horrors and violence and catastrophe-maybe Joshua’s story can sort of prompt conversations or point out toward others.”

Ascher considers A Glitch in the Matrix the third installment in a trilogy about people trying to understand unsolvable mysteries. It began with Room 237-his 2012 deep dive into The Shining conspiracy theories-and continued with 2015’s The Nightmare, about those who suffer from sleep paralysis. “The mystery of 237 is, ‘What is a work of art? What does a movie mean?’ [That goes] to, ‘What happens in this state of consciousness?’ in The Nightmare and ‘Is the supernatural real? And these things people see, do they come from inside or outside?’ This is going one step further into the world.”  

There are places A Glitch in the Matrix doesn’t go. For instance, it doesn’t discuss how simulation theory relates to dangerous current conspiracy theories in politics, though Ascher knows that’s relevant, nor does it go into the idea of “red pilling.” Ascher is happy for the movie to prompt even deeper discussions. He’s opening up a digital wormhole, and hoping the audience will get sucked in with him.Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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