'A Glitch in the Matrix' Director on Why Questioning Reality Such a White Male Thing

Sundance 2021: “It might be that from our privilege, we may feel like there’s fewer ramifications for talking about this publicly,” Rodney Ascher says

Rodney Ascher’s documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which premiered at Sundance and opens on Friday, examines the idea popularized in “The Matrix” of whether we’re all living in a simulation or video game controlled by some higher power. But you’ll notice that even though the movie’s main subjects are all given bizarre looking CGI avatars, all four individuals are white men.

In speaking with TheWrap’s Sundance Studio sponsored by NFP and National Geographic, Ascher said it’s a fair observation and begs the question whether the idea that we’re all living in The Matrix is only something that’s really caught on with dudes who want to be Keanu Reeves (it’s worth noting that the directors of “The Matrix” are both trans women).

In finding the film’s four main subjects, all of whom are ordinary individuals with deeply held beliefs that our surrounding world isn’t real, Ascher conducted a questionnaire through the gaming website Boing Boing that resulted in responses mostly from men.

“That brings us to another question, and I think it’s a completely fair question. Is there a bigger community of people who believe this who don’t look exactly like me, and were we remiss in not finding avenues to reach out to them that weren’t the ones that we used, or is this an idea that is of a special interest to men and to white men, and why would that be,” Ascher asked. “It might be that from our privilege, we may feel like there’s fewer ramifications for talking about this publicly, we’re less worried about being seen as kooky or unstable as other people might.”

Ascher’s film isn’t just about “The Matrix” but is about the scientific idea of “simulation theory” at large. The film is structured around an old manifesto of sorts by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick who believed in simulation theory well before computers were common. Now though, the idea has reached the mainstream, and “A Glitch in the Matrix” also includes clips of people like Elon Musk, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other serious scientists and mathematicians who think that such a scenario is scientifically plausible.

One of Ascher’s main interests though was finding out the human stories behind people who operate as though they’re in a simulation. Each person has their own story or eureka moment when they realized something wasn’t right.

“It was a topic I couldn’t stop thinking about, a rabbit hole I couldn’t climb out of, and in making these projects I’ve learned the way out is through [the other side],” Ascher said. “There’s a couple of real anxiety-producing questions that leap quite naturally from simulation theory. Am I losing my mind to think this, the other is, what does this mean about other people?”

As a way to comment on that idea further, Ascher conducted interviews with his four main subjects by disguising them all under digital avatars. Rather than a virtual background through Zoom or Skype, the person is the virtual one. It was just a coincidence that the movie is now opening in a time when everyone is communicating virtually.

“The idea was to comment on where digital communication is going and how we interact people today,” Ascher said. “We flipped it, so that the background is whatever the real world, arbitrary location they’re supposed to be Skyping to me from… [It’s] reminiscent of game characters. People don’t just play games, they socialize there.”

Ascher compared it to how his son doesn’t play “Fortnite” but rather goes there as a destination and can do so under the guise of an avatar like Deadpool or Kylo Ren. And one possibility is that if we’re all in a game, what kind of game is it? Is it single player and everyone around us is virtual, or is it a networked game where we can interact with other?

Though he didn’t talk to enough people to get a statistical idea of whether simulation theory is something that only white men consider possible, “A Glitch in the Matrix” is hardly the last word on the subject.

“I’m hoping that this movie provokes a huge amount of conversation,” Ascher said. “I never feel like these projects end with a concrete message, conclusion, morale to take out of it as much as questions and conversations to continue after we’re done.”

Check out the full interview for “A Glitch in the Matrix” here and above.

TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is sponsored by NFP and National Geographic.

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