The highly anticipated Spielberg thriller gets the ''Blair Witch'' treatment on the Net

By Noah Robischon
Updated April 30, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

A white rabbit led Alice down a hole 136 years ago, and sci fi writers have been chasing the metaphor ever since. The hare’s latest incarnation leaped online just before Easter, and its pursuers have fallen into a futuristic murder mystery played out through email, fax, and phone calls — all tied to the plot of the Steven Spielberg movie ”A.I.”

This online game is so shrouded in secrecy that the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., declines to even acknowledge it. But its popularity has spread like ”Blair Witch” fever on message boards bursting with players who await each carefully leaked clue. And ”A.I.”’s puppet masters are active participants: They’re incorporating fan websites and conspiracy theories into the evolving story line. Consider this a primer on how to start the journey and what to do once you get stuck.

Who is Jeanine Salla? Dr. Salla, who is listed as a ”sentient machine therapist” in the credits of the ”A.I.” trailer, is the most obvious of the three bread crumbs leading into the adventure. Begin by searching for her name on Google. There’s also a phone number hash marked inside the trailer’s ”Summer 2001” release date, and a series of letters highlighted in silver and gold on the back of the movie poster that reads: ”Evan Chan was murdered; Jeanine was the key.”

What really happened to Evan Chan? To figure that out, you’ll have to read through a maze of interconnected websites, which are filled with allusions to Pinocchio, Greek mythology, and cyberpunk literature. You’ll find scads of working email addresses and at least three phone numbers as the plot unfolds. Remember: Hints will be wrapped inside each email reply, audible in every phone message, decipherable from chemical formulas, or hidden in Web pages’ underlying source code.

Where are the secret passwords? By now you’ll have run into a number of locked doors. Gaining entry to the Pan-American Coroners Office database is easy: Just enter the most obvious name. Other keys require some guesswork (the email from ”Mother” to Chan will tip you off on accessing those voice mail boxes). And then there are the graduate level problems: To sign in as an employee of DonuTech Consulting, look closely at Chan’s family photos, then seek guidance from the gods while gazing at a picture of his intelligent yacht.

Some of the riddles can be solved only by consulting with other ”A.I.” detectives. Fans at Help Solve the Mystery of Evan Chan, The Trail, or Ain’t It Cool News are examining and documenting all the data. Once you’re caught up, join the aficionados on the ”Cloudmakers” discussion group at Yahoo!. And try not to cheat yourself out of the surprises ahead — because the movie isn’t out until July.