The Delirious Alternate Reality of the Cloververse

February 8, 2018 - 8:10am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on the Damien Chazelle-co-scripted 10 Cloverfield Lane were written by Tom Welch, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. 10 Cloverfield will screen in our series tribute to Chazelle on Friday, February 9 at 8:45 p.m., the second half of a double-feature that begins with Grand Piano at 8:45 p.m. The double feature screens for free in our regular screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Tom Welch

At first blush, 10 Cloverfield Lane appears to have very little to do with its predecessor, the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield. The latter was known—aside from featuring Mean Girls’s Lizzy Caplan and The Emoji Movie’s TJ Miller in an early role—as a fast-paced scramble through the streets of Manhattan. Cloverfield was at the same time entirely innovative and entirely derivative, relying on the already-established conventions of found footage horror and the kaiju movie and mashing them up into something new. On the other hand, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic and tightly-plotted thriller. There is no excess of destruction and special effects to distract the viewer. Instead, the film relies heavily on the performances of John Goodman, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr. to move the plot forward. How can these movies, which seemingly share nothing in common aside from a name, be related, spiritually or otherwise?

The answer, at least partly, lies not in the films themselves, but in the marketing, bonus texts, and fan activity surrounding them. They engage audiences not only through the story, but also in the mystery and interactivity leading up to their release. Both films engaged their fanbases in an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. The premise of an ARG is simple; fans plumb the depths of the internet for clues that relate to the film, or which can be used to solve the next part of the puzzle. These games are framed as something real—stories and information from the world of the film that are treated like factual information. An ARG is like a virtual scavenger hunt where players find clues scattered around. Often, the clues are incredibly esoteric and difficult to find, whether they be hidden in the source code of a website (the Cloverfield ARG), in real-life payphones (a Halo 2 ARG), or a flash drive hidden in a real-life concert venue containing a sound clip that, when decoded, would reveal the longitude and latitude of where the next clue would be (a Nine Inch Nails ARG). Cloverfield producer JJ Abrams is no stranger to this kind of intense marketing experience; his television show Lost famously included one.

Lost paved the way for the Cloverfield experiment, but the new game took a flavor all its own. I know this because, as a 14-year-old movie fan with too much time on his hands in 2008, I fell down this strange and wondrous rabbit hole. The plots of the ARGs connect the stories of the two Cloverfield movies explicitly in a way that the plots of the films do not. The original game begins with the background of a fictional Japanese conglomerate called Tagruato that specializes in deep-sea oil drilling and advanced technology. According to some videos found after digging through the original Cloverfield website, it is possible that the original monster came from a volcanic rupture drilling for the deep-sea flora that flavored the company’s addictive Slurpee-esque subsidiary, Slusho (a product that has appeared in many Bad Robot projects like Alias and Heroes). Or perhaps it came from genetic experiments gone awry at a secret lab off of New York. Or both. 10 Cloverfield Lane fits perfectly into this world because we learn from a second ARG released before the film that John Goodman’s character Howard Stambler is a former employee of Bold Futura, the space subsidiary of Tagruato. Whether or not that makes his story any more credible is up for debate.

The beauty of an ARG is that the player is not alone in figuring out these mysteries. As ARGs grew in popularity so too did the forums and fan sites dedicated to solving their puzzles. Playing the games by watching the videos for clues and decoding ciphers became a collaborative experience where players would share their information for the common good of learning more about the universe created in the film. Moreover, the films themselves become part of the overall puzzle of the game. Rather than enjoying a passive viewing experience, fans are able to watch and re-watch the movies for clues about the origins of the threats and the overall universe that the films inhabit. The ARG adds to the viewing experience by providing context to otherwise opaque plot points and giving more nuance and information to the events onscreen, and the films themselves become interactive games and puzzles where viewers try to work out exactly how they fit together. What the Cloverfield movies have been successfully able to do through the ARGs is create an extended universe, not because their films share characters, settings, or even genre, but because they take place in the same lived-in world and are connected through the mysterious conglomerate at the heart of the ARG. In many ways, the games encapsulate the cinematic joy surrounding the franchise.

A new Cloverfield film was released on Netflix directly after the 2018 Super Bowl. Although it was a huge surprise for most viewers, hardcore fans of the “Cloververse” were already hard at work piecing together clues from as early as the 2017 San Diego Comic Con, where a Slusho truck was handing out both frozen treats and Snapchat codes that would open up new pieces of information once followed. This is great news, because the films just aren’t the same without the ARG component that ties them all together and contextualizes them. It’s a Cloverfield tradition.