Revealer associate editor Kathryn Joyce writes:
In the title story of his collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.tells us what all sci-fi enthusiasts—from Ray Bradbury to the creators of Vanilla Sky,Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, most recently, Godsend—already know: “science and morals go hand in hand.” The cautionary equation is always the same: advanced technology plus immoral/hubristic scientist and/or naïve/lazy/wrongthinking civilian equals one whopping morality tale, reminding us not to mess with God’s plan/fly too high/want what we can’t have.
With few exceptions, that’s the kicker of every Twilight Zone episode and nowadays, when it’s made with style or a big budget, these “think” movies spark some interesting (and many pseudo-intellectual) discussions of modern ethics. Which isn’t to say sci-fi morality is necessarily a bad thing—there’s far more ethical nuance in Twilight Zone than in Seventh Heaven—but as a staple of the genre, as in all others, it can be either creative and challenging, or formulaic and trite. And now the whole sci-fi package—the allure to moralize, the dark, dramatized fulfillment of societal fears, the toss-up between cheesy formula and originality—comes in a new format: the mock ad campaign.
Taking its cue from Eternal Sunshine’s mock medical website, Lacuna Inc., and the much earlier Blair Witch hoax, Lions Gate began last month to promote their upcoming film, Godsend, with advertisements for a fake fertility/cloning website, “The Godsend Institute.” In fact, Godsend took it a step farther than Lacuna—links to or identification with the movie are all but absent from the site. Instead Godsend Institute (advertised on such high-traffic sites as Salon.com and The Drudge Report) appears to stand alone, as a fertility clinic specializing in cell-replication “for the purpose of creating life from life.” “Death doesn’t have to be an ending,” it coaxes. “At Godsend Institute, we have the ability to make it a fresh start—a new beginning.”
Through pictures, procedure descriptions and testimonials, the Institute targets parents who have lost a child, claiming to have “pioneered a technique that allows a cell nucleus from a recently deceased child to be implanted within a human egg, allowing a mother to carry that child to term again. In theory, this new child would be identical to its predecessor in every way. By creating life from life, Dr. Wells and his crack team give nature a gentle push, and help to rebuild shattered families.”
The site supplies convincing false details: aerial photographs of the Institute’s grounds and “state of the art” facility in Cohasset, Massachusetts; a phone number to a legit-sounding answering service; and a biography of Godsend’s founder, Dr. Richard Wells (who un-coincidentally shares the name of Robert De Niro’s character in Godsend, the movie). Though the slick website looks professional, specific details are easily debunked. Among the bloggerswho have picked up the story, several have mentioned that Dr. Wells holds a Ph.D., not the required M.D. Kristen Philipkoski, writing for Wired News reports that the address given for the Institute doesn’t seem to exist, and moreover that much of the scientific information is incorrect.
Despite such a breakdown of urban legends, and early descriptions of the Institute as a spoof, many visitors to the site have taken it for real, and many of these were horrified. A petition to “Stop the Godsend Institute!” exists, and though some of the signers’ comments seem like planted incitements to maintain interest—part of the ad campaign, as the whole petition might very well be—other signers were obviously sincere, and their concern was overtly religious. Earnest petitioners and the perhaps-planted provocateurs predictably wrote about interfering with God’s plan and mad scientists. Further down the petition, at the point where it devolved into online-forum bickering, such petitioners were labeled as ignorant, fundamentalist Christians.
This low-grade scandal was, no doubt, an intentional part of Godsend’s advertising campaign. The Godsend Institute’s website is replete with Christian-baiting and very unsubtle, mad-scientist blasphemy. (I.e., Wells explaining that he’s “in the fate business,” and in “Testimonials,” this satisfied customer’s assessment: “If there is a God, his name is Dr. Richard Wells.”) At the very least, if prompting angry Christians and smug skeptics to discuss Godsend wasn’t an explicit goal of the ad-campaign, it can’t have been a surprising side-effect.
Whether or not the advertising campaign and manufactured scandal will work is uncertain. Audiences, jaded by too many hoaxes may well be turned off by the ads; the whole trend of fake ads itself could become as wearily formulaic as bad science fiction. The campaign’s success is just one of the questions raised, though. Philipkoski wonders if it will give “false hope” to real parents who’ve lost children. She also relates the concern of a medical author, Brian Alexander, who worries that the simplistic mad scientist/cloning scenario hurts real researchers looking for treatments or cures for diseases that incorporate stem-cell research, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. This may be the most salient point: considering the outcome of the movie—according to early descriptions, the cloning goes wrong in a nightmarish way—it is ultimately the same old morality tale, free from the complexities that mark the real issue. The irony that the petitioners’ viewpoint may be bolstered by the movie they unwittingly protest is probably of little comfort to Alexander, research scientists or families waiting for a cure.