PLOT: This documentary digs into a school of thought that asks the question, what if reality as we know it isn’t real and we’re all living in a simulation?
REVIEW: What if we were all living in a computer simulation? Ever since The Matrix came out in 1999, that’s been the topic of what I’m sure have been many weed-fuelled late-night conversations among friends, but the theory goes a lot deeper than that. So-called “simulation theory” has been around for a long time, The Matrix only popularized it.
The movie flashes back to a speech given by author Philip K. Dick at a convention, where he describes how an experience with Sodium Pentothal awoke him to a new consciousness, where the artificiality of our world became apparent to him. Director Rodney Ascher, famous for Room 237, interviews several, similarly convinced people – including scientists, theorists, and random folks, all of whom believe this theory holds water.
Ascher himself never works to convince the audience of these claims – the whole point of the film is to ask what if? It’s an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking documentary even if, like me, you’re exceedingly wary of such theories. It’s still a popular idea though, and Ascher makes his point using a lot of footage from nineties sci-fi, including The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and more.
Shot during lockdown, the interviews were all conducted by Skype, but, in a neat twist, vintage CGI is used to disguise the participants, giving them all cyberpunk avatars. It gives the film a striking effect, and surprisingly never distracts from the interviews, all of which are compelling if not entirely convincing to a non-believer such as myself.
Ascher himself is happy to go beyond the theory, expanding the film to explore how our notions of reality are sometimes warped by the works we identify with too much. One such extreme example is the infamous “Matrix Killer”, Joshua Cooke, who killed his parents after becoming convinced that his life was a simulation. He talks about how, as a mentally ill teen, he felt that the film awakened him, watching it over and over, buying a black trench coat, and becoming convinced that he was experiencing the same things Neo did. Cooke, who speaks to Ascher from prison, is a fascinating subject, with him refreshingly clear-eyed about the reality of what he did and not begging for sympathy. Likewise, Ascher never blames the film itself for what happened, but it does help illustrate his theory, about how the idea that we’re living in a simulation has indeed gained traction over the years – an interesting side effect of the information age.
If you’ve seen any of Ascher’s previous films (including his sleep paralysis doc – The Nightmare), you’ll know that they occasionally get pretty “out there”. Some of the wild theories explored here sound more like mental illness than anything (particularly as far as Philip K. Dick goes, with his videotaped rant more disturbing than it is illuminating), but it’s fascinating stuff. While I doubt this is going to make anyone feel like they’ve taken a cinematic red pill, it’s pretty entertaining and a worthy addition to Ascher’s cannon. Love him or hate him, there’s no other documentarian quite like him.