A Glitch in the Matrix   |  ★★★ | available on VOD Feb. 5  

In 1999, science-fiction classic The Matrix welcomed viewers to a world in which the universe is actually an unthinkably complex computer simulation. While the concept itself wasn’t particularly new, it was the first time that mainstream moviegoers were introduced to the idea as a science-fiction premise. In short fashion, an entire generation freaked out.

Two decades later comes A Glitch in the Matrix, the new documentary film from director Rodney Ascher, who specializes in bizarre fringe theories and the people who love them. (His Room 237 is a deep dive into the mythology surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.) Glitch takes its title from a line of dialogue in The Matrix, then pivots off the film to explore a piece of pop science conjecture known as the Simulation Hypothesis.

The quick version: The Simulation Hypothesis proposes that our perceived, consensus reality is a hyper-advanced computer simulation operated by a higher intelligence. It may be an alien race, or it may be a far-future human civilization reaching back in time. Those of us in the simulation might think that we’re conscious entities, but we’re actually just lines of cosmic code.

The weird upshot is that the Simulation Hypothesis is considered entirely valid, so far as it goes, and has been seriously debated by physicists and philosophers, plus public figures including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk.

Every few years, the concept seems to get traction in the mainstream and makes headlines for a week or two. (I got semi-obsessed myself, for a minute.)

Ascher’s film takes an interesting, bold, and not entirely successful approach to the topic. Rather than populate his film with credentialed experts, he comes at things from the inside out. The film is structured around testimony from several true believers, each with crazy stories about odd coincidences and weird synchronicities—glitches in the matrix.

The stories are fun, no doubt, and can be persuasive in that stoned-in-a-dorm-room sort of way. The filmmakers use archival footage and creative animations to illustrate all the weirdness, even going to far as to represent each storyteller with a computer-generated webcam avatar. Interstitial segments are narrated by a deliberately old-school, 1980s-style computer voice.

That stuff works well when the conversation is kept light and trippy. But Ascher makes a severe wrong turn when he introduces a tragic and violent true-crime incident into the mix. Suddenly, Glitch swerves into ghoulish tabloid territory, and it never manages to pull out of that fatal turn. When the goofy computer narrator returns, nobody’s in the mood for that shit anymore.

More successful are the intermittent framing sequences featuring sci-fi godfather Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle), who specialized in alternate realities and elaborate deceptions. I also liked the more sober material on the long history of this kind of existential speculation—a history that goes all the way back to Plato.

Glitch suffers from some serious tonal problems, but the subject matter is intrinsically fascinating. The Simulation Hypothesis is just fun to think about, and it’s interesting to hear these people talk it out. One of them is inspired to quote Shakespeare: “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Another is more succinct: “Just like any other theory, none of us is going to know ’til we’re dead.”

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.