Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Episode 50 - Based On A Story By Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer who was greatly under-appreciated during his lifetime. He wrote somewhere in the ballpark of 200 novels and short stories over the course of his career, but because of the general public's views on science fiction, he was never truly recognized as the creative genius that he was. Unfortunately, Dick died a mere four months before the 1982 release of Blade Runner, the first film based upon one of his works. Since his exposure to the mainstream with this successful film, his name has become synonymous with greatness in the craft of writing science fiction, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from butchering the majority of his stories that it gets it's grubby hands on. The following are my reviews of all eight of the feature films that, for better or worse, have been based on his works to date.

Based On The Novel "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?"
Blade Runner - In the near future mankind has created human clones known as replicants who are used to perform labor on off-world colonies. However, in the year 2019 a bloody mutiny has occurred involving a group of replicants, leading to the decision that all of their kind must be terminated. A small group of replicants, wishing only to live normal, free lives like humans do, have escaped to Earth on a space craft and are hiding in plain site, almost indeterminable from normal people. Enter: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a member of LPD's Blade Runner unit whose job it is to hunt down, identify, and destroy the rogue replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Tired and struggling with depression, Deckard spends his days tracking down his prey although he is slowly beginning to sympathize with their desire to be free, eventually begging him to wonder if, like the replicants he is after, he isn't quite what he seems to be. No matter how hard I try (and believe me, I've been trying pretty damn hard), I just can't like this movie. Many people regard Blade Runner as a classic, extraordinary science fiction film, but the only word that I can think of to describe Ridley Scott's follow-up to the far superior film Alien, is boring. I have not personally read the novel upon which Blade Runner is based, but if this film is an accurate representation of the source material, in my opinion it was just not meant to be a motion picture. The pace of Blade Runner, I imagine, is not unlike the speed of the waiting room at a doctor's office during an outbreak of the ebola virus: excruciatingly slow. Add to this that the characters (and director for that matter) never come right out and tell you anything, and what you've got is not only a boring film, but a confusing one as well. As it is, there is a definitive answer to the question of whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant, but it wasn't until the recent Director's Cut DVD came out featuring an interview with Ridley Scott fielding this very question that anyone actually found out the answer. The reason for this is that the film never comes right out and gives you any real clues to what Deckard is, but instead throws some psychadelic visions of unicorns at you and expects the viewer to come up with their own conclusions. Now, I'd be fine with this if there was no real answer to the question. For example, I don't mind that in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction we never find out what is in Marsellus Wallace's (Ving Rhames) briefcase, or that in John Carpenter's The Thing we are never told if either MacReady (Kurt Russell) or Childs (Keith David) has been infected by the creature at the end of the film, but in both of those cases the audience is never meant to know the answers to these questions. In Blade Runner we are supposed to be able to solve the mystery of Deckard's humanity, but it's just so confusing that there's really no way to do so. The confusing plot and slow pace of the film aside, I suppose Blade Runner isn't so bad. It looks nice, anyway. The special effects and visual style of the film are damn good for when they were achieved. The acting isn't really anything too special, but I can't recall any particularly bad performances. As I said, I've tried to like this movie, but I find it incredibly hard to do so. In the same way that I never liked the original Batman film because it was way too boring for a movie about a superhero, Blade Runner just falls flat for me. It takes some ideas and situations that could be really interesting and exciting and bogs them down with a script that would have had trouble properly filling a film with half the running time of this one.

Based On The Story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"
Total Recall - Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had been having recurring dreams about the planet Mars for weeks when he decided to visit Rekall Inc., a company that implants memories into your head so that you may take vacations and/or go on adventures without ever having to get on a plane or risk your life. However, after Quaid undergoes his procedure, he recalls his life as a secret agent fighting an evil corporation on Mars and cannot tell whether any of it really happened, or if it was only part of his fabricated Rekall vacation. Refusing the advice of his wife, and evading the police, Quaid takes his fate into his own hands and leaves for Mars in search of the answers to his questions. When he arrives he discovers that his visions may have in fact been true as he finds himself in the middle of a class war between a society of innocent mutants and a greedy corporation in search of an ancient weapon left on Mars by otherworldly visitors millennia ago. Total Recall is an action film first and foremost, and a pretty good one at that. This movie, along with The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Predator, and True Lies, illustrates why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the household action-related name that he is today. Quite simply, Schwarzenegger kicks ass in Total Recall not only in the sense that he puts in one of the best performances of his career, but also because he beats the hell out of a whole lot of people over the duration of the film's running time. Speaking of which, the fight scenes in Total Recall are surprisingly brutal and often leave me laughing with delight in their wake. Beyond the purely musclebound draw behind this film, though, we also get a spectacular science fiction concept from Philip K. Dick in the Rekall company. Total Recall can almost be called a sci-fi film noir when you consider that it is about a spy with a mistaken identity in the future. The movie really does have a great concept, and one which was used wonderfully by writers Ronald Shussett, Dan O'Bannon, Gary Goldman, and director Paul Verhoeven to craft an exciting action romp with an intelligent, intriguing backbone. Perhaps the most notable (not to mention memorable) aspect of Total Recall, however, is neither the story nor the action, but instead the special effects. Primarily created by veteran FX artist Rob Bottin, the make-up and visual effects of Total Recall were mind-blowing when the film was released, and are still impressive and incredible to witness today. Perhaps most well-known is a scene in which Schwarzenegger, disguised as an old woman by wearing a futuristic transforming suit, removes the article. The woman's face separates into segments, retracting to reveal Schwarzenegger underneath, and the way that this effect is achieved is absolutely stunning. Ignore any instincts that you may have to stay away from this movie based on Schwarzenegger or Verhoeven's involvement and watch it right away if you haven't yet. For fans of science fiction, action, and/or special effects, Total Recall should not be missed.

Based On The Story "The Second Variety"
Screamers - Screamers get their name from the high-pitched squealing noise that they make when they attack. Created by scientists for use in a war taking place on a remote mining planet, Screamers are small robots which burrow underground and emerge, leaping through the air to attack their prey with saw blades and other sharp weapons. They are self-replicating, and the only way to avoid them is to wear a small device which hides your presence from them. Desiring to evacuate the planet and return to Earth, Joe Hendricksson (Peter Weller) has set out on a journey to find a space craft hidden somewhere in the mountains by the government as a final means of escape for political figures during a crisis. His journey becomes difficult, though, when he discovers that the Screamers have begun to evolve, disguising themselves as humans. Now, unsure of who he can trust, Joe must choose the people he surrounds himself with carefully, because if even one Screamer manages to board his escape craft and make it to Earth, it could mean then end of the human race altogether. Screamers is a film forgotten by time. It was never a big hit and the majority of movie-goers have never even heard of it. Still, it remains one of the better movies to be based off of the works of Philip K. Dick. I've had the pleasure of reading the story off of which Screamers is based, and am happy to say that the movie does a great job of sticking to the basic plot and concept of the story while expanding on some ideas and scenes to make for a better, more well-rounded film. In fact, the opening scene of the movie is taken almost verbatim from the short story, which is a joy to watch whether or not you're familiar with the subject matter. For the most part the special effects are pretty good in Screamers, but they fall apart completely at the cilmax of the movie when an event takes place that was well outside the reach of the computer generated effects available at the time when it was made. Screamers isn't an overly effects driven film, though, and relies more on the characters themselves to drive the story, which is probably why it holds up as well as it does in my opinion. Peter Weller and the rest of the cast sell the believability of the story rather well, especially in the cases of Jennifer Rubin, Roy Dupuis, and Charles Powell, who play stranded soldiers, all unsure of which of them may or may not be a Screamer in disguise. Much like John Carpenter's The Thing (though not quite as successfully), Screamers is about the questions "who is who?" and "who can I trust?" It becomes as much a question that the viewer asks themselves as one that the characters are concerned with. I cannot say that Screamers is a great film, but I personally enjoy it an would recommend it as a good example of Philip K. Dick's work represented well on film.

Based On The Story "Impostor"
Impostor - Spencer Olham (Gary Sinise) is a brilliant weapons designer for the American government during a time of war between Earth and a race of alien invaders. However, it is quite possible that Spencer has gone from our planets savior to the bringer of it's demise. Following the completion of a new weapon that could turn the tide of the war to Earth's favor, it is suspected that Olham may in fact be an alien doppleganger fitted with a bomb inside his chest that could be used to kill significant members of the government during an upcoming meeting. He swears his innocence to security officer Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio), only to be told that Spencer himself wouldn't know if he were carrying a bomb, and the only way to be sure is to remove it from his chest along with his heart, which would of course result in his death. Unable to accept that he isn't in control of his own fate, Olham escapes from custody and flees to the demolished ruins outside the city where he meets a group of lower class citizens fighting for their survival. He offers outsider Cale (Mekhi Phifer) access to medicine with which to cure his sick and wounded people in exchange for his assistance in sneaking back into the city where Spencer hopes to prove his innocence. This task won't be easy, however, with the entire police force searching for them. On the surface Impostor is a horrible film, and under the surface things aren't much better. The acting is sub-par, as is the directing and lighting. There is a reason (not an excuse) for some of these flaws, though. Impostor was originally planned as one of three thirty minute short films to be part of a science fiction television anthology. However, after seeing the promise behind Impostor, the decision was made to extend it and create a feature-length film. As it turns out, what was good for television was not so good for theaters. I think that just about anyone will agree that while television should not always be of a lower quality than film, it can usually get away with being so. In this case Impostor just wasn't strong enough to warrant a ninety-five minute motion picture. Perhaps if the production had been started over from scratch instead of just mutating a partially-completed television special into a feature, it would have turned out better. But it's not fair to pull any punches because of it's origins, so here are my thoughts on Impostor. First, the lighting is horrible. I'm not sure if I've ever critiqued the lighting of a film in one of these reviews before, but it is often terrible in this movie. Scenes are flooded with red or blue light way too often in Impostor, and for seemingly no reason at all. At times the poor lighting just screams "low budget, even for television". Adding to the noticeably low budget are the military uniforms, which were obviously recycled from Starship Troopers. Next we have the acting. Gary Sinise and Vincent D'Onofrio have both proven on multiple occasions that they are talented actors, but if this were the only movie I'd ever seen them in I would be hard pressed to believe it. Mekhi Phifer actually puts in the best performance here despite his incredibly stereotypical "mouthy revolutionary" character. The story of Impostor is a decent one, albeit one of Philip K. Dick's less original ideas, and the ending manages to remain a pleasant surprise, but the events that lead the viewer to this point are fairly poorly constructed. One of the highlights of the film is a scene in which the military is looking for Olham and they make use of a machine that allows them to search buildings without ever entering them. The x-ray device that they use is a simple idea, but one that I can't remember seeing in another film before. Everything taken into account, I feel as though this film was doomed to fail from the beginning because of it's origins as a television special meant to be one third of it's eventual length. Of all of Dick's movies, this is definitely the most low budget one, but if you're a completist like myself, it's certainly not the worst movie I've ever seen.

Based On The Story "Minority Report"
Minority Report - In the future, crimes can be stopped before they ever have a chance to be committed. The police employ the abilities of three children called "precogs" to see into the future and identify the locations and perpetrators of crimes prior to their execution. Then, led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), a team of trained specialists arrive at the scene and subdue the criminals as they prepare to commit their crimes. This practice has gone on for six years time, during which not a single murder has been committed. The only foreseeable problem with this method of justice is that if no crime is committed, how can someone be arrested for it? This is a problem that John Anderton finds all the more dire when he himself is fingered as a future-murderer by the precogs. Sure that he would never murder anyone, despite the fact that the children have seen visions of him doing so, Anderton flees his own people in an attempt to find out who he is meant to kill and why in the world he would want to kill them. With the police, now led by Danny Witwer ( Colin Farrell), on his tail, John uses all of his training to search for the truth behind the precogs' visions and finds that there may be more to this case than meets the eye. What we have here is the standard "one man versus the majority and his own sanity" story which Philip K. Dick is famous for. A fair portion of Dick's stories revolve around this same premise, and thus far, so do all of the movies credited to his writing. It makes for an entertaining ride, which is why almost all of his films are action/adventure stories. What we also have are some genuinely original and interesting stamps of futurity provided to us by Stephen Spielberg. and the crew of the film. Moreso than the story or the performances in Minority Report (both of which are solid), I find myself most interested in these glimpses of the future. For example, the police team equipped with riot gear and rocket packs. Jet packs generally have a cheesy feeling about them, which I think worked perfectly in Minority Report. It added a bit of a fantasy touch to the film. Then we have the precogs themselves and the way that they communicate their findings. As opposed to computer readouts or some such technological system for alerting the police to a future crime, when the children sense an offense in the future, the name of the criminal and the victim are inscribed on small wooden balls. I'm not quite sure why, but this small detail adds a whole new layer of character to the process of tracking down criminals. It would have been easier to just have the names pop up on a computer monitor, but the ingenuity behind the wooden balls shows that the filmmakers cared just a little bit more about this project than they probably had to. Another interesting concept is that in the future everything will be activated by retinal scanning, making it nearly impossible to evade the police because everywhere you go your identity is being unveiled and sent to the police. The way that Tom Cruise's character gets around this problem is also rather original and makes for some very cool scenes. As I said, the acting is solid in this film and the story manages to hold together for the majority of the running time. My only real complaint with Minority Report is the ending. The main plot wraps itself up, but then, as with many movies today, there is a little something extra to be taken care of by the main character. Unfortunately, in Minority Report this little something takes much too long to unravel. The ending of the movie didn't occur until about half an hour after the climax. The events that take place during this period are certainly important, but I'd have liked it if they had happened a bit quicker. I just felt like I should have been done watching the movie long before I actually was. Up until this point the movie is very well paced and enjoyable, though. All in all, aside from the ending, I found Minority Report to be an intriguing, well rounded science fiction action film.

Based On The Story "Paycheck"
Paycheck - Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a reverse engineer. When a company releases a new product, their rivals will hire Michael to go into seclusion for weeks or even months at a time with one of these products to tear it apart and figure out how to recreate it or make it better. When he is done the company pays him well for his time (under the table of course), and erases his memories of his time working for them to secure his safety. After meeting an old friend named James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) at a party, Michael finds himself with a new job. The job will require him to work for three straight years under tight security and then have those three years wiped from his mind. This is a very dangerous task as no one has ever erased that large a chunk of their memory before, but Rethrick promises that he will make it worth Michael's while. Cut to three years later. Michael has completed the job, though he doesn't remember what it was, and is now ninety million dollars richer. However, when he goes to pick up his payment, all he receives is a manilla envelope filled with small trinkets and nick-nacks. Confused, Michael makes a stink at the company and ends up running from the police, unsure of what he's done wrong. Only by making use of the seemingly trivial items that he has in the envelope can he escape from situations that he has no right being able to escape from as he is chased throughout the city. But who left him the small objects, how did they know he would be able to use them all, and what in the world was it that he did over those three years that has everyone so pissed off at him? Paycheck's strong suit is it's ingenious concept which comes directly from Philip K. Dick's original short story. The items in the envelope are different in the film, as well as the situations and characters, but the basic premise of having your memory erased and being forced to rely on a specific set of everyday objects to survive is brilliant. Unfortunately, not all of this film's aspects are quite so incredible. Ben Affleck is capable of delivering a decent performance in some roles, but as Michael Jennings in Paycheck he is absolutely drab. He seems at all times uninterested in what is going on and is never really convincing. Uma Thurman, who plays Jennings' love interest, also puts in a less than impressive performance. Seeing her in films such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, I'm surprised that it's possible for her to be uninteresting on screen, but Paycheck is proof that it can happen. Aaron Eckhart, who blew me away in Thank You For Smoking, doesn't even redeem the cast of this film. He comes off as a very two dimensional character with few emotions and no real drive to achieve his goals. In general I think that the entire cast was...well...miscast. The only person to bring any true emotion to their performance at all is Paul Giamatti, who has a small role as one of Jennings' personal friends toward the beginning of the movie. With no real good characters to feel anything for, the action in Paycheck is essentially wasted. There are some interesting (albeit misplaced) action scenes in this film, but since none of the characters are all that great I never felt truly drawn into what was going on during them. The stunts and set-ups are pretty good thanks to the direction of John Woo, but as I said, they were poorly used in this movie. Speaking of John Woo, I personally feel that Paycheck was better suited for a less action-oriented director. It should have been more like The Fugitive and less like Mission Impossible 2. All in all we have a great concept put to decent use in a poor movie. In the case of Paycheck I get a strong feeling of "what if?" What if it had a better script? What if it had different actors who fit better in their roles? What if it were as good as the source material?

Based On The Novel "A Scanner Darkly"
A Scanner Darkly - Substance D is a new illegal drug that is instantly addictive. The first time you try it you are immediately dependent on it, and over time it has brain damaging effects that cause hallucinations, etc. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a narcotics agent undercover among a small group of Substance D users, attempting to trace the origins of the drug back to it's suppliers. He spends his days hanging around with Freck (Rory Cochrane), Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and Donna (Winona Ryder), who are all addicted to D. Unfortunately for Arctor, he has also become addicted to the drug. As time goes by, Bob watches over his friends in person and via hidden camera feeds which he has set up in their house, although he never really makes any progress with his case. This is partially because he doesn't want to since these friends are where he's getting his supply of D from, and partially because Barris is so paranoid of being caught that he hides his sources well. While inside the agency, Bob wears a scramble suit which hides his identity behind a constantly morphing visage of humanity so as not to risk blowing his cover, but because of these scramble suits he doesn't realize that there is someone else among the ranks of the Narcotics Division who has been watching him all along. A Scanner Darkly may take a few viewings for some people to understand what's going on. Others may just give up and not bother watching it again to find out. It's just that kind of movie. The story, which is very faithful to the original novel by Philip K. Dick (sometimes becoming it's downfall), is incredibly interesting, albeit confusing. Intertwining stories and minute, yet important details are constantly overshadowed by the more appealing interactions and conversations between the main characters, making the story sometimes hard to follow. You really need to pay attention to figure out what is going on. The film moves slowly and often seems as though it is going off on unimportant tangents, but what writer/director Richard Linklater is attempting to do is to draw the viewer into the lives of the characters and make you feel what they're feeling. In the commentary track on the DVD, Linklater explains that he was attempting to make the audience feel as though they too were experiencing the adverse effects of Substance D. I'm not sure if this worked entirely, but I do think that he achieved what he was going for with the seemingly random scenes of dialogue between the characters. Much like Arctor as he lets his investigation slide slowly away from him in exchange for his addiction to the drug, Linklater lets the plot slide away so that the viewer can better understand what kind of world the story is taking place in and what kinds of people we are dealing with. In this way, by the end of the film when the climax happens we truly feel the betrayal and larger-than-thou impact of what has transpired under our noses during the entire duration of the film. The screw that holds the entire film together, then, is of course the actors who are drawing us into their world. Reeves, Downey Jr., Harrelson, Cochrane, and even Ryder, whom I normally dislike, constantly steal the show from one another. Almost every line that is spoken by their characters seems to one-up that which came directly before. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson's performances shine particularly bright as the two most animated of the drug-addicted losers of the group. Beyond the acting, which takes the viewer's mind off of the downplayed directing, the most noteworthy aspect of A Scanner Darkly is the style in which it is presented. The entire movie was filmed normally, then taken into a computer program where rotoscoping technology was used to give the film an animated feel. The reason for this was so that Linklater could attempt to, as I mentioned earlier, make the audience feel as though they were under the influence of some mind-altering drug. As I previously noted, I'm not sure that this comes across completely, but the constantly shifting and morphing visuals certainly give the movie a memorable, original look. The first time I watched A Scanner Darkly I was only really focusing on this visual style and became tired of it about twenty minutes into the film, also missing out on the intricacies of the plot as I was waiting to be visually wowed. As such, I found my first viewing to be unimpressive. However, when I revisited the film I paid more attention to the story, which clued me in to several things I'd previously missed as well as allowed me to better appreciate the visuals as I wasn't constantly waiting for them to wow me. For me it took two viewings to locate A Scanner Darkly's rightful place in the echelon of my favorite films. For you it may take three, or it may just never happen. Or you could be lucky and realize it's quality the first time through.

Based On The Story "The Golden Man"
Next - Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) is a Las Vegas magician with the ability to see a few minutes into the future. He uses this ability to perform his magic act and makes some money on the side by also seeing into the future to cheat at gambling in the very casinos he works at. Only once has he ever seen into the future further than a few minutes, and in that vision he saw a woman named Liz Cooper (Jessica Biel) sitting in a diner at a specific time, but he's not sure what day. Convinced that this is the girl he's meant to spend the rest of his life with, Cris travels to the diner every day at exactly the same time in hopes of meeting Liz, and otherwise just lives a dull day to day life scamming people. Elsewhere, some terrorists have gotten themselves a large bomb and have every intention of using it in the near future. Based on the rumors she has heard about how good at magic and gambling Cris is, FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) somehow deciphers that he must be able to see the future, so she somehow convinces her superiors to let her bring him in in hopes that he'll somehow be able to help them find the terrorists before they set off the bomb. Cris, of course, doesn't want to help because he fears becoming a government lab rat, so he takes off into the desert with Liz after finally meeting her at the diner. When the FBI catches up with him though, Liz is captured by the terrorists as they attempt to escape from the feds and Cris is left with a choice: help the FBI and perhaps save the love of his life, or run for the hills and ensure himself a life of freedom. Okay, now that you've heard the plot of the movie, how about we go over the plot of the story off of which Next is supposedly based? Here goes: It's the future and a race of mutants has appeared on Earth. These mutants have strange powers and are feared by humans, so the government and the military have been hunting down all of the mutants and placing them in camps where they can't hurt people. Cut to a farmhouse in the country. A man whose job it is to search for rogue mutants has discovered that there is one living with the family who owns the farm. This mutant is very tall, his skin his gold, he never speaks or shows emotion, he is incredibly fast, and he can see the future. By sheer luck the government is able to capture "the golden man" and they place him in a cell where they test the limits of his speed and precognitive abilities. Due to his cunning, the golden man is able to escape the facility. The end. Now, let's see what similarities there are between the movie and the story. First, in both Next and The Golden Man there is a character that can see the future. Second...uh...well, I guess there's a mutant in both if you count Nicolas Cage...he looks kind of funny, anyway, and doesn't act like a normal human in most instances. Seriously. Why in the world was Next even credited to Philip K. Dick? It bears no more similarities to The Golden Man than the James Bond movie Live and Let Die, in which there is a woman who uses voodoo to see the future, any of the Final Destination movies, wherein a character always predicts their own death by seeing it happen in the future, or the television show Heroes, which features a character who sees that an explosion will occur in New York City and then tries to stop it. My blind rage that this piece of crap movie is associated with Philip K. Dick aside, lets look at it a bit more in depth. Nicolas Cage is shit. Admit it. He hasn't been good in years, and even when he was good he wasn't that good. Jessica Biel is about as hot as they come, but by no means guarantees a good performance on every outing. This is one of those cases where she just doesn't deliver. Besides, she's way too hot and much too young for Nicolas Cage anyway, making their relationship onscreen completely unbelievable. Julianne Moore is usually someone who gets me excited to see a film, but in Next she just plays the same damn hard-ass, know-it-all, FBI agent that she did in Hannibal (which, by the way, completely ruined the character created in Silence of the Lambs by Jodi Foster). The terrorists are all two dimensional and serve no real purpose in the film aside from giving Julianne Moore someone to shoot at during the climax. Speaking of which, the climax was a major let down. I won't say why in case anyone still wants to see the movie, but after the climax occurs and the scene changes and you see what really happens, I dare you not to be pissed off. You'll know what I mean when you see it. As far as what's good in this movie, really the only thing I liked was how Lee Tamahori visually translated Cris' precognitive abilities. Pretty sad, huh? The only good thing I have to say about this movie is credited to the guy who was responsible for xXx: State of the Union and Die Another Day. Take a clue, read The Golden Man, and if you're ever at a the home of a friend who owns Next on DVD, break it for them. You'll be doing them, the late Philip K. Dick, and our society as a whole a service.

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