I can imagine J. J. Abrams, writer and producer of Lost and Alias, pitching “Cloverfield” to Paramount executives: “That’s right, it doesn’t matter what the movie’s going to be about; it only matters what they think the movie’s going to be about.” Also codenamed “Slusho,” “Cheese,” and “Chocolate,” depending on what film set you spied on in New York, the “Untitled J. J. Abrams Project” trades all the promotional liabilities of the filmmaker—cheap cinematography, banal writing, bad acting, a low production budget—for a viral marketing plan that will draw viewers far more effectively than any flashy trailer.
For you troglodytes who haven’t crawled the messageboards since July, the movie’s trailer previewed before Transformers, leaving viewers with scant details to Google afterwards: the release date of January 18, 2008, the Bad Robot Productions company logo, and meager credits noting the film’s director and producer. The actual content of the trailer—the partying yuppies, the explosion, the frenzy of fireballs and the Statue of Liberty’s head hurdling over Manhattan—are irrelevant. I suspect J. J. Abrams could have shot five minutes of a toilet flushing backwards on the big screen and we’d all be buzzing like flies over you-know-what.
If you don’t believe me, check out the video of the blonde chit-chatting about her yeast infection on JamieAndTeddy.com; this website appeared as a link on one of seven MySpace pages that were ostensibly launched by the film’s pre-existent characters. And LiveJournal users have already begun syndicating XML feeds of the updates. Don’t ask me for sources—the only website we “know” associated with Paramount is 1-18-08.com, a clever Flash that features choice photographs (some are stills from the trailer) and the roar of a monster about six minutes in.
In alternate reality games (ARGs), every source is speculative at best. For example, the folks at Wikipedia’s discussion forum are in a bind over whether to add the website Tagruato.jp to the “Cloverfield” Wiki page. Advocates of “common-sense” argue that the logic connecting Tagruato.jp to its alleged subsidiary, Slusho.jp, is sound. Naysayers invoke Wikipedia’s “Verifiability” and “Original Research” policies. I’ll explain the conundrum: “Tagruato” is a phony off-shore drilling company, linked to “Cloverfield” via its mention on that pink menagerie known as the Slusho.jp website. Slusho.jp purports to be peddling a Japanese soft drink (“You Can’t Drink Just Six!”) that contains a secret ingredient mined from the bottom of the ocean. In our reality, Slusho! alludes to the drink characters enjoyed on the show Alias, which was written and directed by Abrams. Supposedly, Slusho.jp is linked to “Cloverfield” because one of the characters in the trailer wears a Slusho! T-shirt; in turn, JamieAndTeddy.com is linked to Slusho.jp because the girl with the yeast infection mentions the word “Cornbread” during her video, and the phrase “I am Cornbread” appears somewhere on Slusho.jp.
How exactly this all reconnects with “Cloverfield” is not important, unless you genuinely enjoy participating in ARGs. Until Paramount releases the movie, we can infer nothing valid about the movie’s content from these connections, especially given that the purpose of Paramount’s ARG—or any ARG, for that matter—is to promote a form of innocent self-deception. The key to this scheme is that we have become invested in the game, even if only peripherally. Abrams has infected our minds with the “Cloverfield” virus, so that when the movie hits the box office, curiosity will be ravening for the weakest among us.
As internet zombies, we are more like the fast-moving, rage-infested maniacs from the film 28 Days Later. Consider the extensive WHOIS searches countless internet sleuths have conducted on Tagruato.jp, Slusho.jpg and 1-18-08.com—fanatics called telephone numbers, cross-referenced fictional addresses and even uncovered that 1-18-08.com was briefly registered to a long-dead Freemason. Despite these efforts, however, websites EthanHaasWasRight.com (EHWR) and EthanHaasWasWrong.blogspot.com (via Blogger) defied verifiability. Apparently, Mind Storm Labs, the gaming company behind the new Alpha Omega tabletop role-playing game, hired RED Interactive, an online marketing agency, to produce an ARG that, fortunately for them, was mistakenly associated with Abram’s ARG. EHWR created a Flash puzzle that was mysterious enough to dupe “Cloverfield” addicts into believing it was part of Abram’s ARG. Then, the EHWR counterpart on Blogger posed as Ethan Haas’ detractors, but only blogged in shoddy Arabic. (Readers promptly translated all the posts.) No doubt, the tabletop is selling splendidly now, considering that the Blogger site, at the height of the conspiracy, received 2,616 comments from visitors in a single post.
How does the involvement of these websites with the “Untitled J.J. Abrams Project” affect our wired culture? For one, trickle-down economics apply to viral marketing, because the little guy can cash in on the big guy’s hype. More clicks mean more exposure, and more exposure means ad revenue and sales. Granted, ARGs as marketing strategies aren’t new, even with movies. Semi-reputable rags like The Washington Post point out Spielberg’s “Beast” for AI, Halo 2’s “I Love Bees” and the “Lost Experience.” The Post’s Zumbrun describes “Cloverfield” as a “rabbithole” for the indefatigable amateur investigator, that innocuous Alice in all of us eager to plumb the depths of human depravity. But I prefer to think of “Cloverfield” as a meticulously designed mousetrap: J.J. Abrams and Co. deposit the “Cheese,” we leave behind the cash.