Cloverfield: Operation Brainwash

Alternate Reality Meets Cinema Verité to Create Multi-Media Terror That Seems Real Enough to Touch

News | Alexander Litschka, Ana Valjak | May 2008

“Clues” from Cloverfield’s website (Photos: Paramount Picture)

We should not try to bend the spoon because it is impossible. Instead we should realize the truth: that there is no spoon. And then we’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is ourselves.

The boy who bends the spoon in the 1999 film the Matrix taught us in ‘post modern’ cultures a short lesson in brainwashing for the new century. Nine years have passed since then, and we are still sitting in a cave and staring at shadows to avoid the absolute truth. The Multimedia Network we now have is bending our minds more than ever, by using complex viral marketing to blend fiction with reality.

In his latest project ‘Cloverfield’, filmmaker J.J. Abrams (also creator of the multimedia TV Series ‘Lost’) has presented hyper-reality at its best.

Now in theaters, Cloverfield was first introduced as an alternate reality game, and come-on for the film. People in the business, like Patrick Möller, webmaster of the only German Alternate Reality Game (ARG) community, have been fascinated at how realistic Cloverfield was on line. And how many spin-offs – some authentic, some contrived – the project has generated, such that producers have had to step in several times to clarify the relationships.

The mystery began when a short trailer was shown during screenings of ‘Transformer’ (the movie). This became the basis for the Cloverfield project. The trailer begins with footage from a hand held camera at a party of young people in New York City. Suddenly, the mood is shaken into an earthquake scenario with the floor, walls and world heaving on all sides, accompanied by massive, booming vibrations, as if Godzilla had entered the city.

Our attention is attached by design to the cameraman; we see the scene through his eyes, following a group of guests up to the roof. A huge fireball detonates a few blocks away, while the handful of guests are seen running back inside and out to the street.  Masses of confused people are scattering in all directions through New York’s streets, buildings are burning and papers mixed with ashes are whirling about in the air – a little 9/11 allusion based on the destruction in New York.  The trailer ends rapidly with a website address,

But the mystery is still unresolved. There is no title to the film, just a very unclear plot and numbered URL that presents the date of premiere. Still the trailer is provocative, and a desperate search sadly turns up nothing: The answers do not appear on the website address provided. Flash programmed, it shows a few photos taken during the party that can be moved around by a click of the mouse button.

After several hours of trying to figure out what to do, people usually end up on Google trying to find answers with a few keywords. And it helps; a big online community has gathered at so called Unfiction or ARG-Forums to find solutions for the riddle. Thanks to this community posting ideas and discoveries, it is pretty easy to follow the marketing steps, therefore also the background story of the main film.

The story of the film is easy enough to understand. A gigantic monster is interrupting a farewell celebration, and we follow a group of party guests trying to survive the attack. What is unusual is that it excludes the scientists who could have explained what was going on. The audience doesn’t get more information than the handful of young people who are in the middle of the mysterious happening.

The realism of Cloverfield relies on Alternate Reality Gaming (also known variously as ‘beasting’ ‘unfiction,’ or ‘immersive fiction’) which is an interactive fusion of creative writing, puzzle-solving, and team-building, with a dose of role playing thrown in. By utilizing several forms of media, it passes clues along to the players, who solve puzzles in order to ‘win’ pieces of the story as it is being played out. Clues are found in web pages, email, voicemail, snail mail, television advertisements, movie posters, campus billboards, newspaper classifieds… really, in any way that information can be passed on.

Often, the puzzles that must be solved cannot be solved alone. This is a genre of game that requires participation in a group that works together to get past the more difficult hurdles.

Beasting is unique in that it wouldn’t be possible without the community-building and networking power of the Internet. Besides the obvious fact that there would be no web pages or email in which to hide clues, it would be nearly impossible for the diverse audience to coordinate the sheer amount of data, speculation, and solutions among players.

Beside the viral marketing, which includes several tie-in, website-like fake companies that also appear in the movie, the shaky camerawork in the film is based on realism and reflects the youtube generation. Movie theaters have put up a sign warning customers that viewing this film may induce side effects associated with motion sickness similar to riding a rollercoaster.

The style of cinematography leads some who view it inside dark movie theater to experience vertigo, causing nausea and a temporary loss of balance.

The last time we have seen this type of camera style was The Blair Witch Project, a faux documentary presented as real. Another interesting side-effect of digital home-made footage is that the tape can be erased and used again. The young cameraman who captures the consequences of that attack, taped over footage but when the camera falls on the floor we see a few seconds of the original footage, which gives us more background story of the main characters past with the girl he is now trying to save. The damage and weird reaction of the camera substitutes the usual ‚flashback’ method in editing.

However, the best side-effect of presenting a movie as found footage is that more people could have captured the event during that night. The audience know by now that the tape is found by the military and kept it as a confidential document, which means hat there could be more existing evidence.

"While we were on set making the film we talked about the possibilities and directions of how a sequel could go," the director, Matt Reeves, said following at the premiere. "The fun of this movie was that it might not have been the only movie being made that night; there might be another movie! In this age of people filming their lives on their camera phones and Handycams, uploading it to YouTube… It was kind of exciting thinking about that."

It is a great adventure to let yourself be manipulated into believing you are in imaginary wonderlands. One story can be told with the help of several different types of communicational tools like emails, cell phones, cinema, etc. The audience gets active and connects the dots, which means that everything gets added to the big story, in this case the eighty-five minute found-footage film. Technological expanding makes it possible to use more than just one medium to tell a story.  But all this is new to most people, which makes it easy to fool them and therefore melt a fictional story with the real world.

The little boy from The Matrix demonstrated that the spoon doesn’t exist. We just want to believe that it does.

Other articles from this issue