Movies


The last couple of years has seen the release of not one, but three science fiction movies starring Scarlett Johannson: Spike Jonze’s wonderful Her, Jonathon Glazer’s remarkable Under the Skin and more recently, Luc Besson’s Lucy. It’s hard not to speculate on why Ms Johannson was cast in these three films; in the first she plays a disembodied computer intelligence bent on achieving – and then escaping – humanness, in the second, an alien bent on absorbing (literally), and then attempting to embrace, humanness, and in Besson’s film, a human who through unfortunate circumstances has the transcendence of her humanness thrust upon her. I can only assume Ms Johansson’s resumé has a description in it that reads something like “Possesses an other-worldly beauty”, and that directors haven’t quite understood that to be a metaphor.

It is the last of those three efforts that we’re going to examine today on TCA, and you can probably tell by the lack of any superlative attached to the mention of Mr Besson’s film, above, that I’m having trouble finding nice things to say about Lucy. In fact, I was just going to add that this review will contain spoilers when I thought that there is nothing I could do in my wildest efforts to spoil this disaster of a movie any more than it thoroughly spoils itself.

Out of the starting gate, there’s a conceit that was hinted at in the trailers for the film and which I really despise: the ridiculous and completely debunked myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. What I hadn’t realised is that this dumb piece of claptrap is actually the focal plot device of the whole piece, and is relentlessly bashed across the heads of the audience from the first frame to the last. Whatever the case, I entered the story fully prepared to file it away as a deus ex machina of the tale, and accepting it under the Willing Suspension of Disbelief clause. In the end, I couldn’t do it due to the ‘bashing-across-the-head’ problem previously mentioned, but it turns out that it didn’t matter because it’s the least of the film’s stupidities.

The film starts interestingly – but even here my Spidey senses started tingling, I have to admit – with some fancy CGI cell division effects, culminating in a ‘dawn-of-time’ sequence featuring a small ape-like creature that anyone with any scientific literacy will instantly recognise as the progenitor of humans: Australopithecus afarensis, represented here, through inference, by an individual whom scientists have dubbed ‘Lucy’. Clever, huh? Well, yes, it certainly could have been.

Over a sequence of Australopithecus Lucy drinking from a stream, we hear Ms Johannson intoning the words:

“Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?”

Remember that phrase because we’ll have cause to review it later.

Transition to modern day Taipei, where our modern day heroine Lucy (Johannson), is viciously tricked by her creep of a boyfriend into delivering a briefcase with some unknown contents to a certain ‘Mr Jang’. It turns out that Mr Jang has a super new designer drug (a sparkly iridescent crystalline blue substance known as CPH4, which looks a lot like bath salts1) which he plans to ship to various locations across the world ‘in the intestines’ of a bunch of unwilling mules (including, now, a completely freaked-out Lucy).2 It’s a terrifying and disorienting launch into the story, and around here I thought momentarily that, despite my misgivings, I might actually enjoy this movie. The optimism didn’t last long – only to the next scene, as it happens.

Cut to: Morgan Freeman (who is the go-to ‘knowledgeable kindly scientist’ in the same way as Ms Johansson is the go-to trans-human), in the role of Professor Samuel Norman, a neuroscience expert. I use the word ‘expert’ sarcastically, as I doubt that there is a real neuroscientist alive that actually believes the 10% myth. But believe it he does, and he even expands on it using the tried-and-true pseudoscientific tactic of just making shit up. “Most species of animal,” he tells us (without so much as a hint of a wry wink), “use only 3 to 5% of their neural capacity.” I almost snorted my whisky down my shirt, but luckily managed to swallow it. Which is just as well, because after he continues on to wheel out the dumber-than-dumb ‘humans use up to 10%’ factoid, he adds: “But now let’s go on to a special case. The only living creature to use its brain better than us…”

You what? I’m totally on the edge of my seat around here because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE’S GOING TO SAY NEXT!!!

Can you guess it, Cowpokes? Do you know which creature apparently uses a whopping 20% of its neural capacity??? Well, says Prof Norman, it’s dolphins. Yup, not only is this film propagating the idiotic 10% hogwash, it’s starting a whole franchise of its own baloney. I have no idea where this ridiculous notion even came from, as I’ve never heard it before, but accepting for a brief moment that there is any consistency at all to this movie’s internal world, all I can say to you is that the dolphins plainly weren’t in charge of the script.

Meanwhile, Lucy wakes up in a hotel room with a fresh wound across her abdomen, via which, she discovers, a kilo of the previously-mentioned CPH4 has been inserted into her gut, in preparation for her unwilling smuggling trip. Before anything further can happen, however, she is kicked in the stomach by one of her captors, the bag containing the drug ruptures, leaks into her bloodstream and somehow begins the process of overclocking her neural processing abilities.

But before we go on, let’s discuss CPH4.

This amazing substance, we are told, is manufactured by pregnant women in the sixth week of pregnancy. “It’s like an atomic bomb going off for the foetus, and gives it all the energy it needs to create every bone in its body”.3 The stuff inside Lucy is a synthetic analog of the natural version and of which she has metabolised a full 500 grams before she gets a surgeon (at gunpoint) to remove the other half from her stomach. Since there are three other implanted mules, this informs us that there are only 3.5 kilos of the stuff in existence in the whole world, apparently. Remember this fact, because it will become germane.

A this point, Lucy’s brain has achieved, we are informed by one of the relentless and completely arbitrary title cards tasked with keeping us up to date on exactly how smart she is, 20% of its operational function. That’s dolphin level, pal. This allows her to suddenly be a martial arts expert, understand any language she likes, change her hair colour at will, control the minds of others and become an expert sharpshooter, all accomplishments for which dolphins have long been admired.

She now simultaneously sets about tracking down the remaining CPH4 (which has travelled to distant cities in the guts of the other mules) and getting in contact with Professor Norman in order to impart some kind of information to him (what it is, exactly, and to what end she wants to pass it on is never really made clear). Here, we’re at about the halfway point of the movie, and from here to the end the film is just a guffaw-laden hack-fest, with few redeeming features.

In one of many completely daft sequences, while she is travelling on a plane to meet Professor Norman, Lucy’s body begins to disintegrate, and she manages to stop it from doing so by scoffing down mouthfuls of the remaining CPH4 she has in her possession. I was completely at a loss to understand why this was happening. Maybe she shouldn’t have had that champagne that she ordered from the cabin attendant?4

As Lucy’s brain power accelerates upward of 50%, we learn that she now has control over radio frequencies and computers, over matter and even over gravity.

With all that under her belt, she undertakes a ruthless mission to retrieve the other 3 kilos of CPH4. This invokes the obligatory car chase, some more gunplay and a serving of fancy telekinesis. At one point, she quite theatrically sticks some thugs and their weapons to the roof of a corridor. Why she doesn’t simply render them all instantly unconscious as she did to a room full of cops a few scenes earlier is fairly hard to fathom. Whatever the case, the relentless pursuit of the CPH4 all seems so perplexing and unnecessary; if Lucy can control matter, how is it that she can’t just conjure up more of the drug at whim, or, even more conveniently, just re-configure her biology to suit?5

Lucy eventually arrives at Professor Norman’s laboratory and sets about turning herself into a computer. Or something. I’d completely lost interest at this stage, because the movie tipped into the kind of hippy-trippy vacuous science-fiction buffoonery that you usually find in the most B-grade of the genre. Various berserk things happen. This is what I remember:

•Lucy gets injected with the remaining 3 kilos of CPH4 and sets about vanishing all the walls of the building, whereupon everyone finds themselves in a White Void. I really HATE the White Void. The White Void seems to be director language for “we’ve gone off the edge of the known universe, so there’s nothing left to express it except acres of whiteness”. You will remember the White Void from many places, including Doctor Who, The Matrix and Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End. It’s a lazy, inelegant and unsatisfying trope, and anyone who uses it instantly loses a star from my rating.

•She flashes back through time to pre-history, enabling an absolutely gag-making moment between ‘God’ Lucy and Australopithecus Lucy. Think Michelangelo. Yes, it was that.6

•She exudes black crawly stuff that wrecks all the gear in the lab.

•Then, she disappears leaving only her little black dress and shoes. All I can think of at this point is that it’s a perfect allegory for the film disappearing up its own asshole.

Meanwhile, as all this is happening, Mr Jang (remember him from earlier?) is outside shooting up everyone in sight in an effort to get back his bags of CPH4. His sudden appearance in the destroyed lab was so incongruous and meaningless it actually made me laugh. It doesn’t freak him out even in the slightest that he’s blasted through a door with a rocket launcher to find himself in a white infinity of nothingness. If ever there was a pinnacle of cinema-character single-mindedness, this guy is IT. He just wants his drugs back.

Finally, in one of the silliest moments I think I’ve ever seen in a science fiction movie, Computerlucy (for she has apparently become some kind of omnipresent entity living inside the mobile phone network) exudes a crawly black tentacle and hands to Professor Norman her vast resource of newly gained insight.

On a sparkly USB drive. Stop laughing, I’m serious.

Over a craning aerial shot of the destroyed lab, the perplexed scientists holding the sparkly USB drive, and the bloody bullet-riddled corpse of the recently-deceased Mr Jang (yep, crime doesn’t pay), we once again hear that early disembodied voiceover from Ms Johannson, now laden with meaning and import:

“Life was given to us a billion years ago. But now you know what to do with it.”

The End.

NOOOO! NO! We DO NOT KNOW what to do with it! Give me a hint! Is it to put life on a USB drive? Is it to not pursue our drug habits? Is it to find a way to make White Voids? Blue crystals? Dolphin computers? THANKS TO THIS MOVIE, I HAVEN’T GOT THE FAINTEST IDEA WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE DOING WITH MY LIFE. Which is no different to before I saw the movie, only now I think maybe I’m missing something.

Unless, of course, what she’s saying has a meta-meaning: “Why did you waste two hours watching this rubbish when you could have been – oh, I dunno – kicking rocks down on the railway crossing?” In which case I really did get that.

Like so many half-baked sci-fi efforts before it (such as The Black Hole; Sunshine; Sphere to stand just a few in the dunce corner), Lucy is crushed under the weight of its own pretensions. It attempts to be simultaneously an action thriller and a psycho-philosophical musing on human destiny, but achieves neither of those aims, first, because there just isn’t enough cool action and second because it has the philosophical insight of a high-school stoner. When I saw the trailer I was really hoping for something like La Femme Nikita meets Limitless, only better. Instead we got Streetfighter meets What the Bleep Do We Know?, only worse.

As far as Lucy is concerned, on the Scale of Movie Intelligence, the needle is barely nudging 2%. If there is any kind of lesson to be learnt here at all, it is that we should probably be leaving the good science fiction movie-making to dolphins.

Also, this.

  1. CPH4 is twice referred to as a ‘powder’ throughout the movie, which it plainly isn’t. This might seem like a nitpick, but the film is full of these tiny little irritations and after a while they accumulate to have a massive eye-roll quotient []
  2. Never mind that this makes no surgical sense whatsoever – if you’re going to open someone up to stick in a drug packet, you just wouldn’t put it inside their intestines. []
  3. This is total bollocks, needless to say, and doesn’t in any way suggest why it would have utility as a recreational drug. I don’t even understand why you would even write it like that. If you’re just inventing a substance, why not make it some kind of neuro-active agent that you could at least pass off as a new cool hallucinogen or something. This is just one of many witless gaffs made by the film. []
  4. And why the hell was she travelling Business Class? SURELY with her new mind control skills she could have nabbed herself a First Class cabin? []
  5. Follow me here: if pregnant women are able to manufacture CPH4, then, given her superhuman powers, surely it’s a doddle for her to rejig her own body to make gallons of the stuff? I really hate it when this kind of thing happens in a science fiction movie. An audience will accept all kind of bizarre wackiness in the name of speculation or fantasy, but Rule #1 in fantastic fiction writing is that YOU MUST BE TRUE TO YOUR OWN INTERNAL LOGIC. If you break this rule, the audience has nothing to hang on to, and will become adrift in the silliness you’re peddling. []
  6. Seriously, that’s the kind of thing that enters a scriptwriter’s brain for a split second before the Big Red Mind Pen strikes it out of existence for ever. []

I’m partial to a good piece of musical theatre. Call it nostalgia, or call it sentiment, but like the idea of dramas brought to life with song. I grew up in a home where my mother was constantly rehearsing for one part or another so by osmosis I know all of West Side Story, the King & I, Oliver and numerous other stellar productions of the musical theatre ouvre. Later in my life I discovered the witty brilliance of Cole Porter and then the extraordinary talent of Stephen Sondheim, who became my favourite writer of musicals.1

I’ve seen a few Sondheim works performed on stage – Into the Woods; A Little Night Music; Sweeney Todd – and heard most of them as recordings. I’m always intrigued when I hear that a musical is slated for a cinema treatment because I think they can work quite well in this form. I’m especially interested when it’s Sondheim. You’ll all no doubt remember that Tim Burton made a version of Sweeney Todd for the screen some years ago, starring the inimitable Johnny Depp. It’s not one of my favourite adaptations, but I didn’t hate it either.

What was kind of bizarre about the launch publicity for that film was that the initial few trailers didn’t portray any of the characters singing. Since Sweeney Todd is closer to an operetta than a musical – that is, the whole thing is pretty much sung – to produce such a trailer is not something you achieve without a great deal of contrivance.

People who weren’t expecting the film to be a musical were widely pissed off at this piece of disingenuous pretence and there were even official complaints made about it.

Now Disney is about to release a cinematic version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods – and they’ve done the exact same thing!

WHYYYYYYY?

I find it hard to imagine the kind of discussion that must have gone on in the Disney Marketing Department’s offices to arrive at this lumpen, meaning-challenged amputee of a trailer. Nevertheless, I will give it a try.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: What we need is a trailer that will get EVERYONE to come see the film!

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: But our data shows that everyone except senile old people and children hate musicals.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Then we have to FOOL people into coming into the cinema!2

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: I guess so…

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: I know! We could make a trailer that has no singing in it! Make it look like a normal film.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: But it’s a musical. It’s all singing. Everyone sings. All the time.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Surely there are some bits where they don’t actually sing?

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: Well, yes, there are three moments in the film where the words are sort of half-spoken… and I think once or twice there may be five or six seconds where Johnny or Meryl are about to sing but haven’t quite opened their mouths…

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Excellent. Chuck in a few special effects and a guy saying ‘In a world beyond your imagination…’ and it’s sorted! Let’s get our editor onto it!

What I don’t understand is who, exactly, their lame, half-baked, non-singing trailer is aimed at? Into the Woods is a work that is based entirely on fairy tales – do they really believe that taking the music out will give them a chance with the vast goldmine of 14-25 year olds who rock up to see Guardians of the Galaxy? Do these daft studio executives think that they’ll somehow get an opening weekend of those people who’ll be sitting there in the dark and have some kind of popcorn-infused epiphany: ‘Hey, this singing instead of dialogue is THE BOMB!!! And then text all their friends: ‘Hey G!! This musical opera thing is cray sick. I totes can’t believe I thought it was gay!’

Even more perplexingly, if the studio isn’t committed to the idea of a musical, why the fuck did they make one in the first place? It’s not exactly something you do by accident. It’s almost like they’re embarrassed by it or something.

And the thing is, I reckon you could make a really great trailer with singing – it is after all almost a music video clip. I’ll even go one step further – I believe singing should be introduced into ALL movie trailers! You have to admit – for most of them it would improve things immeasurably. And it’s not like trailers are concerned anymore with giving you any idea of what the film is like.

  1. Sondheim did of course work with the incomparable Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, but he really began to shine when he started to compose music for his own lyrics. []
  2. Because that always works out well. []

Google Search’s synopsis for the IMDB entry on the forthcoming Jurassic World seems oddly similar to the plot of another imminent movie. And nothing at all like I was expecting…

Like a bunch of other people I recently saw Ang Lee’s screen interpretation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I thought the film was pretty good – a decent cinematic imagining of the tale, even if it did gloss over some of the subtleties of the book.1 That’s the legacy of cinema of course – commercial pressure sees to it that any idea, big or small, must be squashed into a two or three hour format no matter what the consequence to the idea. But this is not going to be one of my film reviews, you will be pleased to hear. Instead, I want to talk about the premise of the story of Life of Pi itself, and why I think its pop wisdom coda is curiously diffuse and widely misinterpreted.

[Spoilers: To make the point of my post I must necessarily relate plot details and give away the ending, so if that bothers you, you probably should stop reading now.]

The framework for the novel relies on a conceit that has an anonymous narrator relating an incident in which he meets an elderly man who offers to tell him a story fantastic enough to give him faith in God. By inference, we, the reader will also become convinced enough by this wondrous affair when it is revealed to us, to adopt faith in God ourselves.2

The rest of the tale is then told in the first person voice of Piscine Patel – the eponymous ‘Pi’ – and concerns the adventures that ensue when his father, a zookeeper, is forced to close the family menagerie and sell the animals to other zoos around the world. As the story sets out, we learn of a young Pi’s attempts to make some sense of the religions he reads about in school. His efforts to square those beliefs with the harsh lessons of nature he witnesses among the animals in the zoo culminate in him taking the unusual step of adopting Christianity, Hindi and Islam all together – because he can’t see that any one of these doctrines by itself is exclusively of merit. And still, we sense, he is not happy. It sets Pi apart as a curious and conflicted boy, searching for answers that come neither from his rationalist meat-eating father or from his religious vegetarian mother.3 The main part of the story takes place when the family set off to Canada via ship, to escort the last of the zoo animals to their new home. The voyage doesn’t go well, and the ship sinks in bad weather, eventuating in the death of Pi’s family and all the animals save a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and the memorable ‘Richard Parker’ – a Bengal tiger – the four of whom end up adrift in a lifeboat with Pi. The hyena, zebra and orangutan don’t last long for various reasons and what then ensues is a highly improbable fantastic journey, in which Pi trains Richard Parker not to eat him and the two companions witness all manner of marvels including phosphorescent sea creatures, great flocks of flying fish and a carnivorous island inhabited by meerkats. It’s a sweet and engaging tale.

Yann Martel intends it to be more than simply that, though. Navigating past assorted obstacles that are mostly philosophical and/or religious feints that are, unfortunately I think, never really addressed or resolved, Pi and Richard Parker become ever more desperate, until at last, dehydrated and starving, they are washed up on a Mexican beach. Richard Parker immediately vanishes into the jungle with nary a tip of the cap or a cheerio, and Pi is rescued by some itenerant fishermen. On his recovery, he is obliged to undertake an interview with Japanese officials attempting to discover the cause of the disaster which shipwrecked him. Quite understandably, they find his tale completely implausible, and so he tells them another more brutal human story in which, instead of animals, some members of the crew and his mother end up in the lifeboat. They all die in unpleasant but probable ways, and the Japanese investigators draw the conclusion that Pi’s first story is an allegorical recounting of what really happened.

‘But which story do you prefer?’ asks Pi.

The investigators choose the version with the animals.

Pi thanks them and says, ‘And so it goes with God.’

In 2010 Barack Obama wrote a letter directly to Yann Martel, describing Life of Pi as ‘an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling’. It makes me wonder whether President Obama read the same book as I did, and if so, where the ‘proof of God’ actually was, because it seems to me that it’s the very antithesis of that.4

It bothers me deeply that people seem to have read the story in this way. Life of Pi provides no compelling argument for someone to take up faith in God (which was the promise made by our narrator in the beginning, as you will recall). Nor, indeed, does it advance any kind of advocacy for religious belief.5 Sure, it indisputably does offer up a wonderful poetic vision of why it would be nice to think that God exists, but just look at that coda: ‘Which version’ asks Pi ‘…do you prefer?’ Isn’t that as plain as day?

Of course we all prefer the story with the tiger and the magical luminous creatures and the spooky island6 – but preferring it makes it neither true nor illuminating. It just means it is a nice story. In the event, Pi’s journey has no material significance as far as the Japanese officials’ investigation is concerned, so a fictional recounting is neither better nor worse than the truth for the purposes of their report.

With this in mind, a sensible person would surely interpret the message of the book as: Believe whatever makes you feel good as long as you understand that it has no relevance to real life. To accept that this holds any kind of profundity, though, is as absurd as saying that it’s rational to discard the truth for fanciful ideas about Santa Claus, or elves, or the Tooth Fairy, simply because all those are preferable stories. These are concepts we entertain when we are children; fantasies that are quite harmless in the protected realm of childhood but which break down when confronted with rational scrutiny. People who still believe – literally – in the Tooth Fairy into their adulthood tend to have a lot of trouble dealing with the real world.7

In addition, and perhaps more gratingly, this conclusion – that choosing to believe in a nice story is preferable to committing to actual reality – sells the alternative short. It diminishes the wondrous nature of the universe by squashing it under the squalor of the worst aspects of humanity. Pi’s alternative narrative is an unpleasant and uncomfortable one, evoking as it does all the terrible (animal) traits of human beings. It’s certainly not a story someone would ‘prefer’ to live through, but it is the story we are obliged to live through. The obvious takeaway for most people seems to be that the lively fantasy version of the tale, with its more-than-human animals is somehow truer to the way humans ‘really’ are. It’s a familiar hubristic 19th century Judaeo-Christian worldview. Despite its 21st century multicultural pretensions to a lofty spiritual philosophy Life of Pi veritably reverberates with the echoes of the fairytales of Rudyard Kipling and A. A. Milne. Religious thought has ever been like this. It wants to hijack the noble parts of humanity and make a claim on them, whilst distancing itself from the bestial, the venal and the mortal, but the fact is that we humans will never truly be on the path to a worthwhile future as long as we try to set ourselves apart from nature. We can simply ignore what we’re really like or we can attend to it and attempt to address the bad bits. It is a magnificent talent that we can make up colourful and imaginative stories, but we should never, ever, start preferring to believe in them to the detriment of seeking real, touchable, relevant knowledge.

Unless, of course, the consequences actually don’t matter. Then go ahead and believe anything you want.

  1. …and lean a little too heavily on other not-so-subtle things… []
  2. In the movie, the narrator is personified as a young novelist looking for a story and it is an older Pi who offers to provide the justification for faith. This whole mechanism seems tacked-on and clumsy, and exists solely as a setup for the flimsy ‘gotcha’ moment in the finale. When I read the book it tainted the whole experience for me, because I was constantly waiting for the whammy. It would have been SO much more elegant without it, and seems like such an awful high-school flub that I’m totally surprised that it wasn’t heavily criticized. It would have lent the story an ambiguity – indeed, a point – that certainly wouldn’t have prompted a gushing letter from Barack Obama. I can’t say exactly why, but the mechanism was more irksome in the film. It’s been several years since I read the book, so maybe I’m just more touchy on the subject these days… []
  3. Yes, when you put it like that, it does seem rather heavy-handed, doesn’t it? But I’m just telling it like it is. []
  4. Even now, I am compelled to wonder if Martel intended to write an endorsement of atheism but chickened out at the last minute – for, without the framing story, that’s exactly how you would read Life of Pi. []
  5. You could argue that the island with the meerkats is an allegorical criticism of organised religion, in fact. []
  6. Although I feel I must point out that there are undoubtedly writers who could have made the other story as equally compelling, compassionate and poignant if they’d turned their hands to it. It’s another conceit of the novel – in pursuit of its high moral ground – to paint reality as something that is distasteful, miserable and undesirable. []
  7. Indeed, people who hold ‘religious’ beliefs that don’t square with the endorsed and accepted ones face exactly this problem too. You’re an Aetherian? Seriously? [woooo-eee-oooo] []

Atlas brings to my attention this news over on Den of Geek, in which Lucasfilm producer Rick McCallum is interviewed about numerous matters, including a forthcoming live-action Star Wars TV series.

Yes, that’s right. It’s MORE Star Wars, Jim, but apparently this time it’s not as we know it.

Mr McCallum, speaking about the challenges in getting the show into a new era of television, dropped this little bombshell:

It so unlike anything you’ve ever associated with George before in relation to Star Wars. Our biggest problem is that these stories are adult. I mean… these are like ‘Deadwood’ in space.1 These aren’t for kids.

Star Wars as Deadwood in space? O..k..a..y.. I think I can picture that…

  1. I’m not at all sure that Mr McCallum has seen Deadwood []

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