The poster (© Warner Bros.)
And thereshe is - Jeanine Salla
Markings on the back of the cinema-display poster
While Easter came and went without so much as a crème egg around Netribution's office, film geeks, freaks and peeps have been literally creaming themselves in the States over a marketing campaign so big that no-one's even heard of it yet.
A.I. (Artificial Inteligence), the long gestating Stanley Kubrick film based on Brit Brian Aldiss's Super-Toys Last all Summer Long, was taken over by Steven Spielberg after the maestro's death in March 1999, and is set for a release this summer. As if Kubrick's first sci-fi film since 2001, and Spielberg's first since E.T., not to mention the pairing of two of the industry's greatest wasn't enough to make this an event picture, it seems the marketing is set to score a place for it in the history books.
It all started with the release on April 10 of the latest AI trailer. Same day, the Austin offices of Aint-it-cool-news.com (and a few other fan sites) receive a package from an Anna Ghaepetto, containing a double-sided AI poster with circles and squares around letters on the backside of the poster. The rings (in silver) spell out "Evan Chan was murdered" and the squares (in gold) read "Jeanine was the key". A day passes and some wise spark with too much time notices in the credits at the end of the new trailer the name 'Jeanine Salla', credited as a 'Sentient Machine Therapist'. Look on the latest poster for the film and there she is again, with the job title thrown in as casually as 'John Williams as Composer'. Another, as yet unnamed, wise spark tries to find out who this Ms Salla is, and hops over to Google.com to have a search. And here is where the game began.
Now at this point I urge you to read no more of my article, go to Google, and start a search for Jeanine Salla yourself which will put you on the trail of a delirious torrent of web sites, phone numbers, games, puzzles, allusions, delusions, red herrings and mad hatters.
But if, like I first did, you've simple added it to an infinite to-do list, then read on.
Basically, an anonymous marketing genius - chose one from any of a list of names that includes Kubrick, Spielberg, George Lucas or AOL-founder Steve Case - has created a network of websites set somewhere around the year 2142. Each one, in some way, relates to the android based world of AI, where robots protest against slave labour, and the effects of global warming make New York look like Venice.
Threaded through each of these sites is the murder mystery story of one Evan Chan, a friend of Salla and researcher in 'thermal imaging and analysis in both salt and fresh water'. Evan was killed on his boat 'Cloudmaker' on 8 March 2142 in rather supsicous circumstances.
What's most staggering about this campaign is the scale of it all. As well as creating dozens of websites in a variety of languages and setting up phone-numbers and answering services across the US, the clues for this have been stunningly integrated with the films physical campaign. Not only does the trailer and poster mention Jeanine Salla but notches at the foot of the 'Summer 2001' card at the end of the trailer spell out a US phone number - (00 1) 503 321 5122. If you call it you hear the following message spoken by a somewhat automaton woman known as Mother:
"Welcome my child. Once upon a time there was a forest, that teemed with life love, sex and violence. Things that humans did naturally. And their robots copied -- flawlessly. This forest is vast and surprising. It is full of grass, and trees, and databanks, and drowned apartment buildings, filled with fish. It can be a frightening forest, and some of its paths are dark, and difficult. I was lost their once -- a long time ago. Now I try to help others who have gone astray. If you ever feel lost, my child, write me at thevisionary.net. And I will leave you a trail of crumbs..."
And so the game goes on. Clues are hidden everywhere, and full credit must go to the game's designers for the level of complexity behind some of the puzzles. Images and cryptic clues are hidden within other images that can only be found by some nifty fiddling in Photoshop, and even entire web pages are encrypted within the HTML source-code of another page that can only be viewed through clever coding. Early visitors who added their phone and fax number to certain pages have received phone calls and faxes (the sites no longer take numbers), while my in-box has already received a couple of most-cryptic emails.
To add to the mystique, allusions to Alice in Wonderland are rife. A site that forms part puzzle is www.rational-hatter.com with obvious allusions, while The Red King crops up on a hacked version of the Sentient Property Crimes Bureau (SPCB.org) website. The Red King appears in Alice in Wonderland amidst questions on the nature of reality, presumably one of AI's central themes:
"'Well, it's no use your talking about waking [the Red King]' said Tweedledum, 'when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know you're not real.'
'I am real!' said Alice, and began to cry.
'You won't make yourself a bit realer by crying,' Tweedeldee remarked: 'there's nothing to cry about.'
'If I wasn't real,' Alice said...'I shouldn't be able to cry.'
'I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt."
Other sites, including offwithherhead.net and one-lump-or-two.net are yet to fully launch, but are likely to form a bigger part of the story as the tale unfolds. How the game fits with film is anyone's guess, though we're sure to see the results on opening weekend. Only one character in the game has the same name as a character credited for the film, with many fans suggesting that the game actually takes place after the movie is set, acting as some form of online sequel. Kubrick's long-known desire to make a version of Pinocchio with a child robot is clear through the fact that each of the websites is registered to a member of a 'Ghaepetto' family, a play on Pinocchio's father's name, Geppetto.
Already a host of sites and communities have formed to collectively solve the puzzle - notably www.for-evan.com to introduce people to the game, the all inclusive Cloudmaker group and message groups at Aint-It-Cool-News.com and Coming Attractions. If you're really stuck on the game then there's even a full game guide for everything to date - though in my motherly voice, I should stress that Cabel Sasser and Dan Hon's excellent The Trail will take away most of the fun so only visit if you get stuck.
Perhaps what's most staggering about all of this is that it's been kept quiet for so long. Not so much as a cough from whichever team is responsible for producing it (Evan Chan has a grandson called 'Lucas' who designs video games, so LucasArts is Netribution's guess) and nothing from Warner Bros. and Dreamworks, who are no doubt desperate to tell everyone how clever they've been. Also the global hacking and film geek community have done very well to keep this out of the mainstream media for over a week. But as one member of Cloudband says, "when this breaks it will change everything. We've managed to keep this thing pretty well organised thanks to the hard work of a few individuals and a co-operative spirit
Personally, I hope we can keep this underground. We probably can't though. So, to all of us 'old timers' I say, be prepared for a flood of newbies. Please try to treat them nicely."
Well to fellow newbies, all I can say is tread carefully, trust nothing, share your success and - in the style of countless hack B-mo villains - Let The Games Begin.
Let us know how you get on and what you think - firstname.lastname@example.org