In February 2003, a 19-year-old named Joshua Cooke shot his parents to death in their Virginia home. Cooke told his lawyers that he believed he was living in the Matrix, a simulated universe outlined in the 1999 Keanu Reeves blockbuster of the same name. Cooke pleaded guilty, and the defense was never used. But years later, he still offers a chilling, painful account of the moment he realized that killing another human being felt nothing like an action movie.
This is arguably a spoiler for A Glitch in the Matrix, a new documentary about the simulation hypothesis — the idea that our reality is actually artificial. But it’s key to explaining why the movie never comes together. A Glitch in the Matrix is a quirky overview of a popular and intriguing philosophical conundrum: what if we’re living in a video game? It’s also a film about people who take that conundrum incredibly seriously. But it never reconciles those elements. It’s like watching a dinner party conversation about paranormal activity where one guest is sharing wrenching stories about the spirits of dead loved ones and the other is quoting lines from Ghostbusters.
A Glitch in the Matrix is directed by Rodney Ascher, known for acclaimed documentaries The Nightmare and Room 237. The film is framed by a 1977 lecture from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who became convinced of the simulation hypothesis after an anesthetic-fueled religious experience. Its core is extended interviews with a few present-day believers who have had metaphysical epiphanies, appearing through Zoom calls where they’re obscured by sci-fi cartoon-character overlays. Gradually, they lay out their own reasons for believing in a virtual world where other people may or may not actually exist.
Like Room 237, which gave obsessive Shining fans space to present elaborate theories about its meaning, A Glitch in the Matrix offers a smorgasbord of justifications for a simulated universe. You’ll find sober probability estimates from philosopher Nick Bostrom, who popularized simulation theory in a 2001 essay, alongside speeches from well-known proponent Elon Musk and clickbait pseudoscience like the Mandela Effect, which posits that widely misremembered pop culture references are evidence of parallel realities.
A Glitch in the Matrix suffers from having woefully little reality, though. The Zoom interviews are understandable during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re frustratingly abstract, offering no sense of what it means to actually live your life convinced the world is fake. Instead, the film is mostly spliced together from low-budget animations and copious movie and video game clips. The most compelling details get only a passing mention — like a participant who mentions motivating himself to “level up” in life and try new things, reasoning that this will make him more interesting to an otherworldly observer.
Beyond any factual arguments, the simulation hypothesis seems to offer reassuring answers in a scary and irrational world. Why do celebrities senselessly drain their bank accounts or torch their reputations? Because they’re being controlled by a bored player character. Why would a suicidal man steal and crash an empty plane? Because he knew he could just log out. Why can’t you make friends? Because nobody around you is really human.
As the last question suggests, this path can lead to some very dark places. At least one participant acknowledges that his convictions might stem from social anxiety. A Glitch in the Matrix briefly references the nihilistic 4chan “NPC” meme, which (although the film never mentions it) far-right partisans adopted to paint political enemies as literal automatons. And then there’s Cooke — whose killings seem motivated more by straightforward mental health problems than sci-fi delusions, but who methodically details how The Matrix consumed his life.
A Glitch in the Matrix’s version of simulation theory is basically intelligent design for sociopaths. The film’s most interesting parts are about why people believe it, not whether it’s true. But it spends far too long on scattered and remarkably unconvincing arguments presented with a tone of wide-eyed, innocent fascination — a tone that, as figures like Cooke enter the picture, feels increasingly distracting and downright creepy. And if you do think other people are real, A Glitch in the Matrix probably won’t persuade you otherwise.