“A Glitch in the Matrix” is Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary about obscure obsessions taking over people’s lives. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“Hey, did you ever think that maybe we’re all just trapped in some computer simulation,” might seem like the stereotypical stoner ramblings of your least fondly-remembered roommate. (Along with the one about our galaxy just being a single atom in a giant’s fingernail.) But, in director Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary about obscure obsessions taking over people’s lives, “A Glitch in the Matrix,” that question has become the central organizing principle of an entire field of philosophical thought. And also stoner thought. Look, one subject is undisguisedly vaping throughout the film – streaming through PMA Films virtual online video store right now – so I’m not just being dismissive. 

Or maybe I am, a bit. Ascher’s first film, the widely lauded “Room 237,” was similar in that it allowed a disparate group united by one singular obsession (in that case their various, labyrinthine interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s film of “The Shining”) to expound, at length, on a singular, to-them revelatory subject. Also like “Room 237,” “A Glitch in the Matrix” is ultimately far less about the would-be groundbreaking substance of his subjects’ study than a study of obsession itself. There’s some neat stuff in “Room 237” for a cinephile to bat around, but it becomes clear that what Ascher (also director of the harrowing sleep paralysis doc “The Nightmare”) is really studying are the reasons why human beings are so susceptible to obsessive thought, often finding daily reality a mere obstruction to be brushed aside in favor of the actual reality going on behind the scenes.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” is, indeed, centered on “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis’ Keanu Reeves-starring 1999 sci-fi action thriller (and its much lesser sequels), which used as its hook the idea that a malevolent artificial intelligence has trapped us all in an elaborate dream world, for its own nefarious ends. And the film does make a glancing but evocative connection to literary precedents (from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to Descartes’ rhetorical exercise about a sense-deceiving demon) to show how the concept of a higher, unseen organizing principle is hardly new. But the film’s own organizing principle is the work of acclaimed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

Seen in footage from a 1977 lecture unveiling what the author had come to believe was his own awakening, Dick firmly believed that our shared reality was merely an illusion and that his works had been his consciousness piercing that veil of illusion and catching glimpses of adjacent realities. Now, Dick, a troubled genius, did concede that his epiphany came after a traumatic, sodium pentathol-medicated bout of dental surgery, but, again, I’m not being dismissive. Dick’s work is brilliant (ever heard of “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” or “A Scanner Darkly”?), and, hey, what do I know? I could be fake typing this into a fake computer.

But part of my tone comes from “A Glitch in the Matrix’s” flabby introduction of philosophical concepts such as simulation theory and the works of philosopher Nick Bostrom as another cinematic vehicle to let true believers out themselves. Not that they’re not entertaining, but Ascher’s quartet of subjects (all cloaked in cartoonish avatars that I took to noting down as “Egyptian dog-head,” “Galactus,” “Lion-O” and “stoner spacesuit”) suffer the same fate as their Kubrick-obsessed forebears. Their backstories all carry telltale shared elements (unhappy childhoods, strict religiosity, parental neglect or abuse) that hint more illuminatingly about their lifelong compulsion to see this world as merely the shabby and unconvincing creation of an imperfect artificer.

And Ascher’s use of one real-life case of this particular conviction gone terribly, horrifyingly wrong comes off as exploitative, as he seeds in voice-over from a man currently imprisoned for a shocking crime related to his teenage conviction that “The Matrix” was telling him something profound. There’s a genuine and effective unease throughout “A Glitch in the Matrix” as it traces the ways in which our individual searches for meaning in this seemingly cold and randomly cruel world can steer us into the welcoming arms of some truly dangerous nonsense. 

“There are child-devouring cannibals in the local pizza place,” or “foreign voting machine companies landed Chinese troops in Maine to steal an election” (actual conspiracy theory) aren’t that big a leap from “those people with the different skin are to blame for me being unhappy and scared all the time.” And the film does make the case that the increasingly insular (even pre-pandemic) society of mediated electronic communication is leaving the most alone and unhappy the most vulnerable to getting lost in some ingeniously constructed, logic-proof promise of one simple solution. But, ultimately, Ascher’s film is less a philosophy-minded “what-if?” than another shallowly compelling roster of exhibits for us to gawk at. 

The world is, for sure, cold, and seemingly random in its cruelty. And the idea that we are merely pawns in some cosmic game being played by smarter beings we can’t perceive isn’t endemic to the present day, or the understandably wounded and alone. Hamlet’s “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy” is quoted in the film, and, sure, that’s undeniable. “A Glitch in the Matrix” does make the case that our technology informs our metaphors for life, with each era’s thinkers settling on the unifying principle of the marvel of their age (an aqueduct, a clock, a computer) as the one, true and final symbol. And I found myself thinking of T.S. Eliot’s musings that he might be only a minor character in his own life as one subject explained that he might be an NPC (non-player character) in a game someone else is controlling. (Video games play a big part in the film.) 

But that’s our lot. Animals who evolved a little too much to be satisfied with our place as just the next step in nature’s evolution, who search – in vain, but valiantly – for some higher purpose to it all. It’s the source of some of our best, and our worst, achievements as a species. (Parallels to our current dilemma of cultish, scapegoating devotion to the cynically self-serving ramblings of a former president aren’t hard to come by.) “A Glitch in the Matrix” raises some fun thought experiments (and serves as a study guide for people who actually want to do the reading), but, in the end, it’s just another exploitative exercise in admittedly interesting rubbernecking.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” is available to stream through PMA films for $12. To rent, go to portlandmuseum.org/films.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

Video games play a big part in “A Glitch in the Matrix.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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