It took you long enough to get here. Did anyone follow you? Good, because what I'm about to tell you, you can't say to anyone else. No, not even your better half. And no, you can't take an Insta-selfie and post it later. Uh uh. This stays between us.
But enough with the questions. Are you in or out? Mm-hmm, you sure? Because if you say yes, there's no turning back. No, I can't guarantee you won't have nightmares about it. What are you, 5? Yes or no? You gonna swipe right or left? Finally! You have chosen wisely.
All right, listen closely. What if I told you that this meeting is not happening of your own free will? That this conversation already happened, in myriad forms, many different times before. What if I said you were an avatar going through the motions for Someone Else's amusement. And who might that be? That's the million dollar question, isn't it?
And what if those universe-building architects keep leaving clues scattered around for us to find? A cosmic scavenger hunt, if you will. Okay, you can stop laughing now. What, I'm not making sense? You're the one reading this, thinking this is leading to a big revelation. Sorry to disappoint you, but I only have questions. Yes, even more questions than you. As for the answers, two filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to wade into the murky waters of simulation theory. Do they make a dent? Do their searches yield satisfying results? Let's find out... before the faceless shapers molding this secret rendezvous discover that we're on to them.
"A Glitch in the Matrix"
The audience sits and listens to the bearded man spewing what sounds like comic book nonsense. Of course, perception varies from one person to another, so what might look like a crowd having their minds blown by a guru might come across as a bunch of skeptics politely keeping their disbelief to themselves, as the older gentleman addressing them seems more and more like a crackpot.
But on that day in September 1977, it wasn't a crackpot who was sitting there, revealing to audience members at a science fiction festival in Metz, France, how his dreams led him to hypothesize that what we think is the reality that surrounds us is not real at all.
With somber gravity, prolific author Philip K. Dick said, "We are living in a computer-programmed reality, and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs."
It might have sounded far-fetched in 1977, but in 2021, the fascinating, but very much out-there proposal, known as simulation theory is gaining popularity in some circles, prompting people to look for signs that things we can see and touch are actually a facsimile, a mirage that fools the senses the way a movie set does.
Dick's speech is also a point of departure for documentarian Rodney Ascher, whose latest effort grapples with the complexities of simulation theory. Its most admirable feature is the filmmaker's ability to boil down in layman's terms concepts that may otherwise be difficult to grasp. In other words, he's pulling an Errol Morris, making technological jargon easily digestible for those of us who didn't always do well in science class.
And for at least the first hour, "A Glitch in the Matrix" is Ascher's breakthrough, cleanly summarizing the points of contention that have transformed the way we perceive all that surrounds us and perhaps points the way forward as to how mankind might evolve in that regard. Known for his "oral history" approach to disquieting subject matter, as posited by a series of talking heads, Ascher structures his new film in a way that glides from one subject to another without losing his grip on the daunting material, like the way he explores the links between science, religion and philosophy, or how the sci-fi action smash "The Matrix" blew the doors wide open about simulation theory. It's quite the high-wire act.
Then he makes a crippling miscalculation, the glitch in this matrix. Despite the heady nature of his movies, Ascher aims to entertain, and one of his measures this time around is by injecting an element of true crime.
Shhh, don't tell anyone, but one of his interview subjects did something horrible. How horrible are we talking about? Enough to question Ascher's judgment as to why he is giving this individual a platform in the first place. Setting aside the ethical ramifications of this decision, what left a bad taste in my mouth is how he foreshadows the heinous act throughout the film, building up to a climactic reveal.
The director deals with his depiction of a real tragedy the way he approaches the theoretical concepts he analyzes elsewhere: with clinical detachment. The blood chills, and one is left feeling more than a little manhandled.
Gaming imagery, including from first-person shooters, is a motif throughout "A Glitch in the Matrix," and even though it's exhilarating at first, Ascher ends up leaning on it way too often, especially during the disruptive moment when he crosses a line that throws the film out of whack. One feels its fabric unraveling from the thoughtless sensationalism on display. Then he returns to his regularly scheduled programming of scientific inquiry as if everything is okay.
But it's not okay. This unfortunate detour triggers the notion of an alternate reality where Ascher made a movie that didn't jerk viewers around or spring a grim "gotcha" moment on them. A documentary where his empathy didn't start feeling counterfeit and he didn't hit you over the head with pop culture references. A production where the solipsism that's being dissected didn't bleed into the filmmaking. It's the movie that our version of "A Glitch in the Matrix," brainy yet immature, started out as, but somewhere along the way, this file got corrupted.
Greg Wittle's office is spacious yet nondescript. His desk phone keeps ringing, but the executive is worlds away. His attention is consumed by the sketches he's working on. A resort that looks so inviting, you can see the blue skies and pristine pool water in your head. In one of the drawings, a beautiful, mysterious woman is looking directly at you. But who is she, and what is she hiding?
Welcome to the woozy paranoia of this parallel-worlds yawner, a misfire that would get on your nerves more if it weren't so disposable. This hybrid of substance abuse allegory and futuristic cautionary tale wears its heart on its sleeve, and that would ostensibly be a balm after enduring Rodney Ascher's cerebral nerdgasm. And yet director Mike Cahill, who never met a sci-fi high concept he didn't like, struggles to fuse the disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
A meeting with his boss that goes disastrously awry sends Greg (Owen Wilson) running out of the building and into a bar across the street. It's there where he meets Isabel (Salma Hayek), a homeless woman who, in terms of the "Matrix" trilogy, acts as both Morpheus and Trinity, a guide and love interest rolled into one. She essentially gives him Cahill's version of the "blue pill/red pill" sales pitch, only here it's dragged out for nearly half of the film's running time. Think of having to wait about 40 minutes for Dorothy to make her way to Oz, and that will give you an idea of how frustrating "Bliss'" lopsided narrative is.
As Isabel shows Greg, who is recently divorced and estranged from his adult children, what he thinks is reality is actually an elaborate fabrication, one that he can mold with the god-like powers stored in yellow crystals that act like the Wachowskis' spin on the truth-revealing sunglasses in John Carpenter's "They Live." The small amber-hued rocks also personify the metaphor of virtual reality as drug addiction, a bad idea that's even preachier than it sounds.
It's sheer silliness, saddled with a need to make a point. With Wilson and (a grating) Hayek headlining this earnest and often dour bummer, imagine how much more effective it would have been if Cahill had reconceived "Bliss" as a rom-com with a sci-fi twist. Even Bill Nye, cast here as, wait for it, a science expert, would have made more sense if his brief role had been played for laughs.
And yet Cahill pushes forward as if he were remaking "Children of Men." By the time the movie lifts the curtain to show its wizard, it's too late. The answers he comes up with would have been intriguing if the film's tired gimmick hadn't made the film so darn mopey. The filmmaker also shows his cards too early, draning the movie of nearly all suspense. He has made an erratic swing for the fences, deprived of an identity of its own. Every shred of a personality vanishes even more quickly than the enigma at its core.
"A Glitch in the Matrix" had its world premiere virtually during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is now showing at Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood and Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale. It is also available for digital rental through iTunes, Amazon Play, Vudu, YouTube and other platforms. "Bliss" is now available as a digital rental.