The documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” takes its title from a line in “The Matrix” (1999). “A déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix,” Carrie Moss’s Trinity tells Keanu Reeves’s Neo. Two further “Matrix” movies followed, both in 2003. A fourth is set to arrive in December.
The premise of those movies is that “life” is, in fact, simulated reality. “A Glitch in the Matrix” — available via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room — looks at the theory that simulated reality isn’t just in the “Matrix.” It’s the world. That cup of coffee you’re drinking? Your socks? Even, yes, you? They’re all computer generated. Consciousness isn’t something inside your head. Consciousness is code. It’s not part of you. You’re part of it.
That view may sound . . . implausible? Certainly, it’s unrealistic. Which is the whole point. The question isn’t what reality, it’s whose reality. Plato’s allegory of the cave might be understood as a beta version of simulated reality. Descartes’s idea of a malicious demon is a sort of forerunner. Philosophical papers have been written about simulation theory. Elon Musk buys in to the concept. And when you consider developments in virtual reality, well, reality as simulation doesn’t seem quite so out there — or at least way out there.
“Glitch” draws its inspiration not just from the “Matrix” movies but also the work of the visionary novelist Philip K. Dick. A video of a 1977 talk he gave in France (don’t worry, it’s in English) provides the documentary with a kind of structural axis. The talk was called “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.” You can see its pertinence.
Rodney Ascher directed “Glitch.” He’s best known for “Room 237” (2012), an inspired look at several bizarre theories about Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). “Glitch” ups the ante on that documentary and then some. It looks at a bizarre theory about everything.
The result is lively, playful, and busy — in a very good way. Ascher (who edited) offers a torrent of film clips (everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to the several films adapted from Dick’s fiction) and much in between. Let’s hope the researchers got time-and-a-half for overtime. There are video games, lots of computer animation, the art of William Blake, and talking-head interviews shot off of computer screens.
Actually, talking-helmet interviews would be more accurate. Several of the subjects appear as avatars. This seems goofy, and definitely gets the viewer’s attention, and not necessarily in a good way. Soon enough it seems almost natural, even fitting. After all, what does the concept of identity mean in a simulated-reality world?
About two-thirds of the way into “Glitch” a new, unseen interview subject appears. His name is Joshua Cooke. If his name is at all familiar, that’s because his lawyers came up with what is now called the “Matrix” defense. Thematically, including Cooke makes complete sense. Tonally, it throws the documentary disturbingly out of whack. Even if you don’t know the crime Cooke committed, it’s pretty easy to figure out the horrific direction things are heading in.
What had been a particularly zippy Errol Morris-style movie (intellectually playful and engaging, shrewdly literal and allusive) turns Werner Herzog primal and unflinching. Ascher’s including Cooke — whose account of his actions is fascinating, no question — is intellectually justified and artistically courageous. It’s also emotionally disastrous. The earlier part of the movie now seems frivolous and what follows seems beside the point. Whether or not reality is simulated in no way matters when it becomes unbearable.
A GLITCH IN THE MATRIX
Directed by Rodney Ascher. Available via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films/glitch-matrix. 108 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, highly disturbing first-person account of a gruesome crime).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.