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Simulation theory movies offer words of caution

What it means if nothing is real

A simulated neighborhood matrix grid from A Glitch in the Matrix Image: Magnolia Pictures

If a stranger told you the whole world was a fraud and you were living in a computer simulation, would you believe them?

Movies don’t often choose their moments, so it’s a happy accident that two films about simulation theory, the notion that the world we believe to be real is actually virtual, dropped on the same day earlier this year. Both Amazon’s sci-fi film Bliss and the documentary A Glitch in the Matrix consider the consequences of actions in a simulated world, and amoral behavior when everything around you is the product of source code. They’re less about simulation theory itself and more about the kind of people who cling to it. In A Glitch in the Matrix, that includes Paul Gude, Alex LeVine, Jesse Orion, and Brother Laeo Mystwood, Ascher’s chief interviewees, each represented through colorfully gonzo avatars; in Bliss, it’s Greg (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Salma Hayek), two “real” people living in a simulated reality, where they enjoy telekinetic powers bestowed on them by ingesting suspiciously innocuous looking yellow crystals.

They might have a drug problem. Or they might really be living in a simulation. But what Bliss hints at without engaging in deeper exploration, and what A Glitch in the Matrix explicitly puts forth, is this fundamental question: does it matter?

Salma Hayek points Owen Wilson at something offscreen in Bliss
Bliss (2021)
Photo: Darko Krobonja / Amazon Studios

Bliss and A Glitch in the Matrix approach this quandary from very different angles. In Bliss, Greg, a down-on-his-luck divorcé, meets Isabel (Hayek), a Magic Pixie Cyber Crust Punk, on the worst day of his life: He’s just been fired from his job, and he’s also just unintentionally killed his boss. Along comes Isabel, who informs him the world and its inhabitants are simulated, helps him cover up his boss’ death, then takes him roller skating, where they wipe out the whole arena together with just a few flicks of the wrist. Bodies topple left and right, some deserving, others not, until only Greg and Isabel are left standing, laughing, happy as can be at the sheer inconsequence of their violence. To his credit, Greg needs convincing before letting loose. He’s new to this reality, which isn’t reality at all, and he’s still clinging to his old cultural hangups.

But when he does let loose, he makes pistol fingers and fans his thumb-hammer with joy as people fall like dominoes. He’s liberated. He can do what he wants, and he doesn’t have to feel bad about it. He feels no remorse over the death of his boss. Nothing matters except personal satisfaction, a bargain that comes at the cost of a few dozen NPCs’ lives and dignity.

Ultimately Bliss glosses over morality where A Glitch in the Matrix fixates on it. Paul Gude, represented as a riff on Lion-O with a shimmering ruby mane and centurion’s armor, tells Ascher about a conversation he had with his uncle as a kid roughly 50 minutes into A Glitch in the Matrix: “‘What if this is all fake? You know? What if none of this is real?’ And he said, ‘Well then what’s to keep me from going door to door and just shooting people in the head? Or what’s to keep me from shooting you?’” Their exchange is reenacted in primitive CGI as Gude narrates; by the time it ends, the sequence has thrown simulation theory’s dark side into sharp relief. Gude’s ethical calculus doesn’t change depending on whether the world is real or a computer program, but for his uncle, conviction in the knowledge that our reality is the only reality takes priority over his own ethical calculus.

A computer-rendered image of a disembodied brain hooked up to a series of wires and tubes, with a white-coated man at a dashboard of switches and dials out of focus in the background Image: Magnolia Pictures

Gude, speaking to Ascher, sounds haunted by the memory and its human implications. If the only thing stopping people from breaking laws and perpetrating heinous deeds is that people are real, the world is real, and actions have consequences what does that say about your character? Is it morally good, or even just neutral, to act out against “fake” people, as Isabel does? They aren’t real. Who cares? Drop a light fixture on them. Hit them with a car. Programmed intelligences have neither feelings nor souls. Go nuts! The problem, as Bliss casually implies, is that it plays into simulation theory’s wish fulfillment component: The fantasy allows people an escape from either their dissatisfying lives or from taking responsibility for their lives’ dissatisfactions. If their actions have no consequences, they’re not at fault for the state of their lives, and that somber validation gives people permission to break all manner of laws and mores.

In The Matrix, Neo discovers that he’s not a cog in a machine, and that he’s the savior of mankind, kung fu Jesus in a black trenchcoat; in Total Recall, Douglas Quaid takes a vacation from himself and winds up embroiled in a civil war on the surface of Mars; in The Thirteenth Floor, the primary cast all slowly realize that their world is a VR simulation, and so ensues a noirish tangle of backstabbing and murder; in Existenz, VR game testing begets bloody corporate espionage. The worst examples of VR gone wrong naturally expose simulated violence as immoral, while the best examples — The Matrix and Total Recall — dress the violence up in action cinema garb. Notably, The Matrix’s famous lobby shootout, which looks unimpeachably cool even 22 years after the fact, has sober ramifications. Neo and Trinity aren’t just gunning down hostile mobs in a video game, they’re killing real people plugged into the Matrix working as security guards in the simulated world. Even defeating an Agent means killing an innocent person whose consciousness is subsumed by artificial intelligence.

It’s striking that Gude, Ascher’s first and most articulate A Glitch in the Matrix interview subject, clearly identifies simulation theory’s great moral dilemma: The argument for simulation theory stands apart from the argument that actions, even simulated, have consequences. It takes the story of Joshua Cooke, who slew his parents in February 2003 after convincing himself that the Matrix is real, to punctuate just how far embracing belief in alternate realities can push people, and that killing, whether in the flesh or in 0s and 1s, indulges our most terrifying base instincts.

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