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Are We Living in a Simulation? The Director of ‘Room 237’ Decided to Find Out

Documentarian Rodney Ascher talked to everyday people who are convinced the world around us is an illusion. But as he tells MEL, he’s more interested in the mystery of why we believe what we believe.

It’s the sort of thing you see people debate on the internet: What if we’re all living inside a simulation? Espoused by visionary science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and popularized by The Matrix, the idea behind simulation theory is that everything around us is not, in fact, real. Sure, it seems real, but our reality has been constructed by an outside source and we’re merely trapped living inside it, unaware of this greater power at work. The same way we control a video game character who lives in an artificial environment for our amusement, simulation theory suggests that we’re all essentially Jim Carrey in The Truman Show: Nothing is what it seems to be.

When you have high-profile figures like Elon Musk championing the likelihood that we’re living in a simulation, it becomes much harder to ignore, especially when the theory gets adopted as a shorthand on social media as a catch-all to explain away weird occurrences in everyday life. Something odd happen? That’s just proof we’re living in a simulation.

Rodney Ascher has made a career out of diving deep into unique obsessions. The documentarian builds his films out of the passionate testimony of true believers, who reveal to him, for example, why they see bizarre hidden themes embedded within The Shining (Room 237) or their experiences coping with sleep paralysis, a rare condition in which you’re neither entirely asleep or awake but, rather, frozen in a horrifying limbo visited by unholy visions (The Nightmare). Others might mock these people, but Ascher evinces genuine curiosity because he’s interested in why they believe so passionately about these things. His movies are as much about strange phenomena as they are about our need to take them on as personality traits. In a roundabout way, his movies are about faith.

His latest, A Glitch in the Matrix (which opens in theaters and on-demand Friday), tackles simulation theory with a similar approach. Once again, he bases the film around a handful of subjects — called “eyewitnesses” — who share how their realization that life as we know it is an illusion changed their lives. Conducted over Skype, these interviews don’t feature the subjects’ faces — instead, we see motion-capture animation of these individuals, as well as computer-generated reenactments of their stories. None of Ascher’s eyewitnesses are celebrities like Musk or Dick, although both men show up in archival interviews — rather, they’re just regular people who have found an odd sense of comfort in deciding they’re in a manufactured reality. A terrible car crash? A seemingly literal out-of-body experience while visiting a sensory-deprivation tank? The repetition of certain events on a regular basis? All proof of the simulation. 

Ascher never offers his own verdict on simulation theory, letting viewers make up their mind. But, really, A Glitch in the Matrix, like his previous documentaries, isn’t about getting to the bottom of anything. Ascher makes movies that luxuriate in mysteries and ponder what they say about us in a more general sense. When we talked over Zoom last week, the sweet, soft-spoken filmmaker demurred when I asked direct questions about his personal feelings about life as one big simulation. But I sensed that, like me, he felt that if we’re all in some big video game, well, does it really even matter? “It’s fascinating to think about,” he tells me, “but it doesn’t change that much about the here and now.”

Where his previous films offered no expert commentary — none of Stanley Kubrick’s colleagues or sleep scientists were invited to give their two cents — A Glitch in the Matrix does make room for deep thinkers, in particular Nick Bostrom, the philosopher whose groundbreaking writing on simulation theory in the early 21st century helped bring these ideas to the mainstream. But, as always, Ascher is most emotionally invested in his eyewitnesses — the everyday people whose lives have been forever altered now that they know the truth. Well, at least the truth as they see it.  

During our conversation, Ascher discussed how simulation theory is a new form of religion, what’s inherently selfish about a simulation worldview and why he chose to interview Joshua Cooke, a convicted murderer who adored The Matrix. Throughout, though, we also talked about the need to believe in something, whether it’s simulation theory or the idea that Kubrick made The Shining to confess to helping fake the U.S. moon landing. Or as Ascher puts it, “It’s about searching for meaning, right?” 

Simulation theory, in a way, seems like people’s idea of Heaven — or the multiverse — in that it’s an attempt to wrestle with the notion that there may be more to life than the visible world we know. However you define it, are you someone who thinks there’s “more” than just this?

I don’t think a whole lot about the afterlife, but fate is something that I think about a lot. Every time I come across a notion [that] an event can be so powerful that it has reverberations — not just into the future but also into the past — those kinds of metaphysical ideas would always put a chill down my spine. And simulation theory seems adjacent to some of those. 

You described it as something akin to a faith in Heaven, but there is science behind [simulation theory] — you can read what Neil deGrasse Tyson or Elon Musk or Nick Bostrom have to say coming at it from a scientific basis. But the truth of it is, I’m not that well-educated in science. [Laughs] I have trouble understanding a lot of that — for me, [I] put a pin in the fact that people smarter than me describe it as plausible. But beyond that, I think it does become very quickly a matter of faith — in many ways, it’s an alternate creation myth. 

So, assuming there’s no way to escape the simulation — or to communicate to the people on the other side — it becomes, to me, “Well, I still have to go about my day-to-day business.” It’s fascinating to think about, but it doesn’t change that much about the here and now.

I was struck by the fact that, when people talk about simulations, it’s often because something bizarre happened: The Cubs won the World Series, or Donald Trump got elected president of the United States. It’s always life’s peculiarities that are proof that we’re living in a simulation. 

Philip K. Dick talked about how déjà vu was a sign [of] the simulation — and that he had memories of things that [were] different than they were now, as if they had been changed while he was asleep but he retained that memory. There’s that great visual in Dark City: While the people are all asleep at midnight, the operators come in and they change the set. The folks that I talked to, a lot of them would talk about strange coincidences and synchronicities. [Interview subject] Alex [LeVine] survived this very strange chain reaction of events and, in hindsight, simulation theory was the only explanation that he bought.

Every day, I see the strangeness of [modern times] being used as evidence of the simulation. But what’s interesting is Nick Bostrom doesn’t necessarily feel that way — not to put words in his mouth, but to my memory, he didn’t think that [in a] simulation that any of the cracks were likely to show.

In the film, the simulation is rarely a happy place — the idea is that we’re stuck in a nightmare. 

Think about it from the perspective of video game characters — many of them are put through the gauntlet of endless combat. We didn’t create Fortnite as a paradise on Earth for those characters — which raises the question of, “Well, what is the point of the simulation?” Often, I think [simulation theory] is just used as a way of explaining away absurdity. If nothing else, it certainly minimizes the importance of life on this planet because there’s the idea that there is a real, more important world out there someplace. But then again, isn’t that a religious idea: That heaven is the real world and this is a little training area where you prove yourself? The real rewards — the real important stuff — is out there.

I’m curious how you found your subjects. Did you tell them not to sell you on the idea that we’re in a simulation? Was it simply, “I just want you to explain to me why you believe in it so strongly”?

They found us: We advertised that we were doing the film, and a bunch of people wrote to us. Then I interviewed maybe 20 or so that then turned into those four [“eyewitnesses”]. But my big question [to them] was, “Where were you in your life when this idea occurred to you, and how has it changed your life?” I’m very much soliciting a personal narrative about their perspective with simulation theory, so your question was very close to mine. Those interviews — which can last anywhere from one to three or four hours — the less I talk, the better I’m doing.

You chose not to show your “eyewitnesses’” face. Instead, they’re presented as animated avatars. Did your subjects get to choose what they looked like?

They were custom-designed by this amazing comic book artist, Chris Burnham. Then my friends at Mindbomb built them out into 3D characters, and this animator, Lorenzo Fonda, put on a motion-capture suit and imitated what the characters were doing in the Skype interviews.

I’m curious about the decision to do that. You always protect the privacy of your subjects by not showing them on screen, but was the idea here that you wanted to emphasize the unreality to which we’ve grown accustomed when communicating with one another? 

It was certainly the juxtaposition of real and not real — of unreal characters but in the very real spaces [of] wherever we chose to Skype with them from. [We] put very naturalistic, human language into the mouths of these [animated] characters. 

But what’s real, what’s not real? How do people talk and communicate? My kid plays a lot of Fortnite, and it isn’t always just the combat game — there’s also sections of it where he can just hang out with his friends, and you see these fantastical seven-and-a half-foot-tall robot ninjas just talking about school and their family and snacks and things. And it’s genuine communication, right? 

As often as I communicate with my voice on the phone, I’m texting or even more sending emojis and GIFs. You can use the Snapchat filter to turn your face into a robot, into a rabbit, into a cat. It feels sort of evocative of where communication is going: If you’re going to be talking to someone on video, your real face is only one of many, many options.

A Glitch in the Matrix talks about non-player characters — the background figures in video games that don’t do anything. The idea, according to simulation theory, is that some of the people we see around us are actually NPCs — they’re not real, they’re just “extras.” It feels like such an egotistical notion: We’re the star of the simulation, and everybody else is a background player.

Simulation theory is comparable to so many ways that people navigate the world. Someone who’s abusive to waiters thinks that the waiter is, more or less, a non-player character — it’s an obstacle to them getting the service that they want, and their cheat code is to verbally abuse them and intimidate them. Emily Pothast talks about othering [in the documentary], and it’s not a big leap to think about racism, sexism and homophobia as a way of dividing between the “important” people and those other groups that are less important. NPC is just a very strange, 21st-century version of it.

For years, violent video games — and their supposed disconnect from reality — were blamed for bad things people did. Your movie discusses how online games can be seen as a kind of simulation — it feels like, in another form, we’re once again talking about kids being divorced from the reality around them. 

There are a thousand shades of gray. Especially looking at this last year, where so many kids physically can’t see their friends, [I can tell] that video games are a panacea as a way for them to socialize and to interact. Even if we weren’t in lockdown, my son’s best friend moved to Minnesota last year, and video games allow them to continue to socialize and hang out. So I can’t minimize what a godsend that’s been — even if the idea of people living in this world, as if we were in a game of GTA, is a little frightening.

You include an interview with Joshua Cooke, who’s in prison for murdering his adoptive parents. He was a big fan of The Matrix, which for a long time has been held up as an example of how Hollywood can impact disturbed young people.

I’ve always been very, very skeptical of those ideas — probably not the least of which was because, as a teenager and a young man, I would seek out the most outrageous, over-the-top movies I possibly could as sort of endurance challenges. 

Josh himself would be the last person to say, “I did what I did because of The Matrix.” The headline “The Matrix Made Me Do It” is such an incredible simplification of his story. [In the film] he talks about what he went through as a perfect storm: It was abuse, loneliness, undiagnosed mental illness, one setback after another in his personal life that pushed him over the edge. And it may be that The Matrix gave it a skin — an avatar, a style — that, in that another circumstance, could have been Star Wars or Batman or what have you. Watching that movie was one thing out of 20 that happened to him. Even he talks about [the fact] that a lot of people have gotten positive things out of The Matrix: “I’m kind of a one-in-a-million case.” 

I think of other movies that have been blamed for violence in the past, like The Warriors or Clockwork Orange, and they’re amongst my favorites. So I’d be very, very late in the queue to blame fictional violence [for] what happens in the real world.

How do you feel that Cooke’s story fits into A Glitch in the Matrix? He’s less about simulation theory, per se, and more about being obsessed with this particular movie’s ideology. 

Well, he is a square peg, in some ways, in the story. But the aspect of it that I thought most interesting [in terms of] simulation theory was “the Matrix defense” — the fact that many people, I think maybe six to 12, have used the fact that they thought that they were living in a simulation as part of their insanity plea. The notion that this idea can be dangerous — and isn’t just navel-gazing, stoned-dorm-room conversation — made it all the more important. 

Once I did the interview with him, it was one of the more fascinating ones that I did — and there was all kinds of danger of it being misinterpreted, so I spent a gigantic amount of time editing it and massaging it and tweaking it and trying to weave it in in a way that felt both authentic to his experience and a natural part of the film. But, also, it tied into earlier parts of the movie. [One of my subjects] talks about the guy who stole the plane in Seattle [whose only experience with flying was through games]. [Interview subject] Paul [Gude] talked about his uncle who said, “Well, if none of this is real, then I can just go around the neighborhood shooting people.” So [Cooke’s story] doesn’t come completely out of the blue. And once you set up that idea that being in the simulation makes the real world unimportant — and other people unimportant — those sorts of dangerous ideas are fast on the footsteps.

Paul also suggests that the growing popularity in simulation theory is due to organized religion crumbling in our society. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s an interesting idea that it’s a new way to find community or purpose. 

But he’s [really] talking about himself, right? He was somebody who came from a very religious family — a very religious tradition — and has since left it and embraced simulation theory. And I think of Jesse Orion, who talked about the notion that simulation theory may well be part of some religion of the future, which is perfectly easy for me to imagine. For a lot of people, religion is a way to find community and to connect with their family, but [religion] has quite a body count, too — one a heck of a lot worse than The Warriors, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, anything that Hollywood has ever come up with.

In your films, you really get people to open up — they’re incredibly vulnerable and candid about themselves. In A Glitch in the Matrix, did you sense that they really wanted to explain something about themselves that goes way beyond what they’re there to talk about?

Absolutely, and that’s happened, luckily, in all [three] projects. Simulation theory as a scientific, philosophical idea is interesting as far as it goes, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the way people interact with it — the way people explore it, the way people find it an answer to their own lives. The same thing with even 237: Those weren’t armchair critics, they were people who were really invested in the ideas that the movie was helping them illuminate.

Do you feel like you have to protect your subjects? They really set themselves up to be mocked. 

Yeah, I do. It’s always difficult working on the tone, and a lot of that comes through the work of Jonathan Snipes, the composer and sound designer. We’ve done a couple of these together now, and the philosophy is much more about “Let the music try to reflect the emotions of our characters, and not of an audience or the filmmaker thinking about these people, judging these people, reacting to these people.” The whole process is about trying to let the audience see the world through somebody else’s eyes. 

This is the first [of my films] that has “experts” and isn’t only case studies. The Nightmare, some people criticized it for not having experts in sleep science. But if this was a psychology research paper, when I was in school and reading a handful of them, the case studies were always the things that I found the most fascinating — much more than the conclusions or the experiments. And that’s kind of how I see [my films]. 

I don’t believe we’re living in a simulation, but at the same time, if we are, so what? It changes nothing about how I go about my life. 

In a way, it pokes at the word “simulation”: This [world] might be a digital construction, but if this is the only world we know, there’s nothing simulated about it at all. For those unfortunate Fortnite gladiators who are cursed to fight to the death again and again and again, that’s their life — and it’s a real life as far as it goes.

Your movies don’t offer definitive answers — you just want your subjects to have their say. But how are you feeling these days about the possibility that we’re in a simulation?

I still have no way of knowing. But I have spent more time wondering, “If this is a simulation, what’s the purpose of it? And what’s my role in it?”

And what’s your verdict?

I’m searching for meaning, like everybody else in this simulation.

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