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22 years after The Matrix, simulation hypothesis movies are booming again

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the 1990s, there was a strange trend where two movies about the same topic came out in the same year.  For example, Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both movies about killer volcanos, hit theaters in 1997.  The next year, in 1998, both Deep Impact and Armageddon were about heavenly bodies crashing into Earth. This trend perhaps reached its zenith the next year, in 1999, with two movies about the idea that we live inside a video-game-like world: The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor.

In the years since, the idea that we might be living inside an ultrarealistic simulation — known as the simulation hypothesis — has moved from pure science fiction to serious speculation among scientists, philosophers, and academics. In fact, when I released my book, The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics Agree We Are in a Video Game, I chose an auspicious date: March 31, 2019, exactly 20 years from the day that The Matrix hit theaters and became the most talked about movie that year (eclipsing even Star Wars: The Phantom Menace).

I couldn’t imagine that there would be a better year than 1999 for simulation-related entertainment. I was wrong.  Many TV shows have flirted with the idea over the past few years (episodes of Netflix’s Black Mirror, Hulu’s Upload, and HBO’s Westworld are just some examples), and now it seems that Hollywood has caught the simulation bug again.

2021 may end up being the most simulation-laden year in cinematic history. Already, we have four major films released this year addressing simulation theory in different genres, ranging from documentaries to dark psychological dramas to comedy. And that’s not even counting TV shows like Marvel’s WandaVision, which has its own simulationlike thing going on.

While we are years (if not decades) away from being able to reach the Simulation Point and create our own Matrix, Hollywood is clearly there already. Here here’s a quick rundown of all the latest movies that feature the simulation hypothesis in some way.

Glitch in the Matrix (February 2021)

A Glitch in the Matrix - Official Trailer

Released in early February, this documentary from Rodney Ascher (the director of Room 237), has already started to draw some controversy. But for a documentary, it’s gotten a remarkable amount of attention, with reviews everywhere from The New York Times to The Guardian. The film makes several odd decisions. Rather than being about simulation theory per se, it’s more about people who truly believe they are living in a Matrix-like simulation. Furthermore, Ascher chose to film his subjects remotely and also to make the interviewees look like video game avatars — which makes for an odd but memorable viewing experience.

Perhaps even more controversial is that he devotes a significant amount of time to Joshua Cooke, who killed his parents in 2003. Cooke claims it was because he was watching The Matrix repeatedly, wearing a black trench coat, buying a gun, and otherwise assuming he was in the simulation. This became known as the Matrix defense, which is a real thing that has been used in court.  This unfortunate decision to devote so much time to someone who was mentally ill and decided to kill his parents in my view moves this documentary from enlightening to frightening, from a playful video game-type energy to a dark, creepy, and rather unsettling movie.  Still, the graphics alone make it worth watching. The implication that simulation theory, like almost any religion or philosophy, can be twisted in the minds of true believers is strangely disturbing.

Bliss (February 2021)

Bliss - Official Trailer (2021) | Prime Video

This film from Amazon, also just released in early February, is a sci-fi psychological thriller from Mike Cahill, who rose to prominence with the indie sci-fi film Another Earth that raised interesting questions about parallel realities. In Bliss, the main character, Greg (Owen Wilson), is down on his luck, having recently divorced his wife and been fired from his job at a firm called — appropriately enough — Technical Difficulties. Things get worse when Greg accidentally kills his boss. In an attempt to hide the body, Greg rushes out without his wallet to a bar across the street and meets the mysterious Isabel (Salma Hayek), a homeless woman who tells him that, like her, he is “real,” while everyone else is not.  To convince him, Isabel demonstrates her power to affect material objects and NPCs (video game parlance for nonplayer characters, or simulated characters).

Free Guy (May 2021)

Free Guy | Official Trailer | 20th Century Studios

Due to be released on May 21, just in time for the summer movie season, Free Guy is a sci-fi comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum). Perhaps a little more like The Thirteenth Floor than The Matrix, the film features Reynolds as an NPC who, we are told, becomes “self-aware.”  This is, of course, always the big question when it comes to simulation theory: Even if you are in a simulation, are you role-playing the character and exist outside of the video game (a la The Matrix), or are you a simulated character in the game that has no existence outside the video game world?

This can lead to uncomfortable questions not just about what is real but about what consciousness is and what morality exists with respect to simulated characters.  In this case, when Guy (yes, that’s Reynolds’ character’s name) realizes he’s in a video game, he sets out to become a hero by saving his city, Free City, from certain destruction at the hands of the simulators (i.e., the video game designers). We don’t know much more except that it’s much less serious than the other films on this list, which is a welcome break.

The Matrix 4 (December 2021)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Finally, on December 21 of this year, we’ll (hopefully) get a fourth Matrix movie, underscoring how this year will be remembered perhaps as being bigger than 1999 in simulation lore. Details on the film are scarce at this point, but we do know it’ll be directed by Lana Wachowski (only one of the two Wachoswskis, who wrote and directed the original Matrix trilogy), Keanu Reeves will be back as Neo, and Carrie-Anne Moss will be back as Trinity. Unfortunately, Laurence Fishburne will not be returning as Morpheus.

We also know that some of the filming took place in the financial district of San Francisco in 2020 before the lockdown, which means at least part of the film will take place back inside the Matrix – in the gray landscape of skyscrapers where most of the action of the original trilogy took place.

What if Hollywood is right?

All this talk about simulation in our entertainment does bring up a disturbing possibility, if we are in fact living in a simulation.

In The Thirteenth Floor, the main character, Doug Hall, is told by one of the simulators that theirs is the only simulation (out of thousands) that was able to create its own nested simulations. Because of this, the simulators were moving quickly to shut it down. Though it’ll be a while before we can create nested simulations of our own, let’s hope this year doesn’t alert our simulators that we have caught on to this fact. At least let the simulation run through the end of the year so we can watch the rest of these movies!

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Rizwan Virk
Rizwan Virk is Executive Director of Play Labs @ MIT, a video game program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and…
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