On a snowy Monday in February 2003, 19-year-old Joshua Cooke re-watched his favorite movie — Lana and Lily Wachowski’s mind-bending 1999 blockbuster, The Matrix — for the umpteenth time. Later that evening, he descended into the basement of his family’s Virginia home and fatally shot both of his adoptive parents with a 12-gauge shotgun, and then called the police to confess his crime. When Cooke’s case came to court the following October, his lawyers employed what’s become known as the “Matrix defense” to defend the so-called “Matrix Killer.” The argument, which has been used in a number of other cases, goes like this: Much like Keanu Reeves’s Neo in the film, Cooke came to believe he was living in a computer simulation, and couldn’t distinguish between reality and the digital world. Ultimately, Cooke opted to plead guilty to first-degree murder, and is currently serving a forty-year prison sentence.
That story — as told by Cooke himself — is one of the centerpiece sequences in the new documentary A Glitch in the Matrix, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and arrives in theaters and on VOD on Feb. 5. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film isn’t a true crime documentary, but rather a wide-ranging exploration of simulation theory, the very idea that’s at the core of the “Matrix defense.” Pulling on the various strings of that theory led the filmmaker directly to Cooke. “Early on in my research about simulation theory, I came across the idea of the Matrix defense, and the fact that more than one person has used the idea that they were living in a virtual world as an insanity defense,” Ascher tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I think the notion is that if you don't understand the consequences of your actions, then you're not criminally liable. And if you already think that you’re not living in the real world, that's a fairly substantial argument along those lines.”
Interestingly, though, Cooke does seem to understand the consequences of his actions. Speaking with Ascher on the phone from prison, the now-36-year-old describes the events of that night in a clear and almost disconnected manner, describing his past self’s actions as if he’s watching them play out in a video game. “He was happy to tell his story, because he's been spending his jail time trying to work on himself and become a better person, and reach out to troubled kids like he was. I made it clear that I would honor that part of his story, and then he was happy to be as shockingly candid as he is in the film.” And the filmmaker chose to illustrate Cooke’s account with video game-like graphics, even employing a first-person shooter perspective — a harrowing choice that some critics have taken issue with.
But that approach underlines the importance of Cooke’s story in the movie’s overall narrative. It’s a version of the famous moment in The Matrix where Neo “wakes up” in the dystopian future outside the virtual world. The sequence ends with Cooke’s digital environment dissipating into pixels after he commits his crime. “All of the stories featured in the film are about people trying to make sense of when their minds changed — when they figured something out,” Ascher explains. “And for Joshua in that moment, his world didn’t derez, but it did disappear. He left that house and never went back, and entered a new world as a result of his actions. It was a dramatic and instantaneous paradigm shift in his life.”
While in prison, Cooke has made other media appearances and even wrote an autobiography where he’s talked about his youthful obsession with The Matrix, as well as violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and edgy rock music. (In his conversation with Ascher, he specifically remembers listening to the Drowning Pool song, “Bodies” — which includes the line, “Let the bodies hit the floor” — as he carries his gun downstairs to the basement.) “It messed me up really bad,” Cooke says in the film. “It wasn’t anything like I had seen in The Matrix. Real life was so much more horrific.”
By including Cooke’s interview in his film, Ascher knew that he’d likely be re-igniting the debate about whether violent movies and violent video games inspires violent real-world behavior — an argument that Cooke subscribes to and that he personally disagrees with. “That was maybe a reservation I had about his story,” Ascher admits. “I’d be the last person to say that violent movies create real-world violence. Movies like The Warriors are among my favorite films. There’s a moment where Joshua talks about that night and mentions how he was playing violent video games, and I was tempted to cut it, because I don’t want to be that person who argues that video games cause real-life violence. My son plays violent video games, and it’s been a godsend in the last year, because he can socialize with his friends, while he’s been cooped up inside our house.
“But I also wanted to respect him enough to let him tell his story his own way,” Ascher continues. “When I look at Joshua’s story, the real issues are a lack of mental health care in public schools and lax gun control more than The Matrix. The movie, to my eye, maybe just gave him an avatar for his delusions. I think the smart aleck retort is that the body count of violent movies and video games is dwarfed by, let’s say, religious texts as one example.”
Giving people the space to tell their own stories is a hallmark of Ascher’s documentaries. The director broke through with the 2012 cult favorite, Room 237, a deep dive into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the fans who study every frame of that horror classic. At the time, some reviewers — including a few of Kubrick’s collaborators — assumed that Ascher was endorsing some of the wild theories his subjects invented, but the larger point of both that movie and A Glitch in the Matrix is obsession in its many different forms. In the case of Glitch, he specifically tracks how simulation theory gradually emerged out of the realm of scientific discussion and into pop culture, where it was absorbed by storytellers like Philip K. Dick and the Wachowskis and then passed along to consumers, some of whom were all too eager to buy into the idea that they’re the only conscious individuals living in a computer rendering of a world otherwise populated by non-player characters.
While the Wachowskis aren’t interviewed for the film, the impact and influence of The Matrix is a regular topic of discussion amongst Ascher’s subjects, who range from scientists and armchair enthusiasts. (Dick, who died in 1982, provides commentary via footage of a lecture he gave in 1977 where he directly addressed his feelings that he inhabited a false reality.) The latter subjects are only ever glimpsed onscreen as elaborate digital avatars, which obscures their actual identities. But Ascher allows that they basically fit the same description: white male nerds — a group that’s historically been particularly partial to the idea that they’re the heroes of a bigger story that no one else is aware of.
“At a certain point, it became clear that all four of those avatars are people of fairly similar demographics, and their demographics aren’t that different from mine,” Ascher says, candidly. “It’s an open question of whether I didn't reach out far away enough from my own comfort zone to find people with wildly different experiences who also believed in it. But I think it’s also a very fair question: Does it appeal mostly to nerdy, white, cisgendered, heterosexual American white guys for a reason?”
Speaking nearly a month removed from the Jan. 6 insurreciton at the U.S. Capitol, Ascher is well-aware of what it looks like when a largely white male group who subscribe to a specific wolrdview decide to act on their beliefs. And he also knows how certain concepts introduced in The Matrix — most notably the red pill that Neo takes to wake up from his virtual slumber — have been adopted and recontextualzied by groups outside of the realm of simulation theory. To be clear, none of the subjects featured in A Glitch in the Matrix have ventured down those particular rabbit holes, but through Joshua Cooke’s story and Dick’s increasingly-paranoid lecture, it hints at how fun obsessions with the implications of simulation theory can give way to something darker.
“That was on the big board of ideas when we started the movie, but it didn't wind up being a topic that we wound up covering,” Ascher says of the specific connection between Neo’s red pills, and “redpilling” — a phrase that’s become increasingly popular in conservative circles. (Lana Wachowski famously responded to Ivanka Trump after she used a joke about red pills in a Twitter exchange with Elon Musk.) “I think the phrase is to be used as sort of a freestanding metaphor as we move forward about opening your eyes to what’s really real. Of course, the irony is that different people have different ideas about what the real world really means, and the implications of accepting the red pill. Some of them probably very directly at odds with the Wachowskis, but there you go!”
Speaking of the Wachowskis, Lana Wachowski recently completed production on the fourth Matrix film, reportedly titled, The Matrix: Resurrections, which will premiere in theaters and on HBO Max later this year. “It’s an amazing coincidence,” Ascher says of the timing, adding that he started work on his documentary long before the franchise announced its return. “I’m dying to see what’s going to happen. This film ended up being more about The Matrix than I had expected. I never thought it would be a deconstruction of a film — I did that already with Room 237 — but The Matrix fits in as the place where the idea of simulation theory first made it into a lot of peoples’ heads.”
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