Star Wars – The Force Awakens Teaser Reaction

So Thursday kicked off the largest gathering of Star Wars fanatics this side of Mos Eisley… Star Wars Celebration.  To open the festivities, director J.J. Abrams, and executive producer Kathleen Kennedy hosted a Force Awakens panel complete with the stars of the films, as well as some behind the scenes people.  They finally concluded the event with what everyone had been waiting for… the new Star Wars The Force Awakens teaser trailer:

The internets went wild as Twitter feeds flooded with reactions to the two minute tease.  The general consensus seems to be overwhelming excitement… My reaction is a little more tempered.  While there are certainly some awesome elements, there are quite a few things that concern me.  Still I really enjoyed the trailer, but something felt… off at the same time.  I decided to give it a few days and watch the trailer a few more dozen times.

There’s Something Familiar About This…

JukuuThe trailer begins with like the original teaser for The Phantom Menace, in a very quiet long establishing shot, as our hero, Rey traverses the desert of Jakku on a speeder bike through a ship graveyard.  It’s a wonderful moment and evokes a very Star Wars otherworldly feel… we fade to black.  Unfortunately the rest of the trailer is hampered by a case of living in the past.

In fact, that’s the whole premise of the trailer… to convince older fans that Star Wars is safe again…

and the last thing Star Wars needs to be is safe…

Vader Helmet Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame©Lucasfilm 2015 X-Wings Trooper Snow PlanetWhile reflecting on the trailer a good couple of days I’ve come to the conclusion that director JJ Abrams is doing his damndest to convince audiences that his new Star Wars film is fresh, while all the time catering to the nostalgia of older fans, and ultimately fails miserably on the first count.  The trailer is little more than a 70s/80s retro fest with nearly shot for shot recreations of the Death Star II exhaust port chase, a recreation of a famous publicity shot, and constant call backs to the Original Trilogy.  Originally I was going to do a point by point breakdown of different shots, and I may at a later date, but to summarize, there’s a lot in the trailer I really like, but there’s a disturbing tendency on JJ’s part to play it safe and simply cater to fans, and that’s not what the Saga needs right now.  What Star Wars needs is a fresh voice with bold ideas who understands what came before and wants to continue telling stories rooted in myth while approaching it from a new angle.

Does JJ “Get” Star Wars?  image

What particularly disturbed me about the Celebration Force Awakens kick off panel were comments uttered by Abrams himself which really made me question whether or not he even understood what Lucas was trying to accomplish with the entire Star Wars Saga, let alone the Original Trilogy. At one point Abrams regurgitated the Prequel basher talking point that Star Wars is really at its heart, a Western, which of course implies that Lucas really doesn’t get Star Wars at all and the appeal of the franchise.  Somehow, Star Wars is a space Western and if Lucas just would have kept Star Wars limited to that box the Prequels wouldn’t have gone off the rails (so the theory goes).  This whole mantra of Star Wars as Western source seems to have begun by a group of Lucas bashers who created, what they call, the “4 Star Wars Rules.”  Apparently on some level Abrams subscribes to this theory.

While talking about his experiences shooting in the desert of Abu Dhabi he said, “Star Wars is as much Western and fairy tale as it is anything else.  One of the things you expect and want to see is these tangible, beautiful John Ford landscapes…”  A nice sentiment JJ, but you are simply talking out of your butt.  Any first year film student will ArtooThreepiotell you the “John Ford look” is all about Monument Valley found at the border of Arizona and Utah.  Monument Valley is an area dominated by sandstone buttes and mesas… not rolling endless sand dunes.   I suppose you could argue he’s talking about the sequences in the valleys of the Jundland Wastes, but that seems a stretch as most people think desert planet when they hear the word Tatooine.  In fact there’s very little in the way of John Ford to be found in A New Hope, but there’s a lot of it found in Attack of the Clones.   Instead what Lucas did in A New Hope is adopt a very David Lean look from Lawrence of Arabia to inform the visuals of the desert planet.  With a big, endless desert framing most of his shots.  However, Lucas clearly channels his inner John Ford in Attack of the Clones:

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(NOTE: Thanks to Mike Klimo of Star Wars Ring Theory for recently posting these screengrabs on his Twitter feed.  They’ve been very illuminating)

Even the plot of A New Hope has almost nothing to do the Western genre.  Sure there are elements of the American Western sprinkled throughout; Han is certainly a space cowboy, Mos Eisley, and especially the cantina have a very Western frontier town feel to them, but they are just elements of the whole.  A New Hope, like Star Wars in general is an amalgam, a pastiche of the influences of Lucas’ youth and interests as a filmmaker, borrowing heavily from sources such as Flash Gordon, Tolkien, Greek myth, Japanese cinema, Medieval adventure tales, layering it all with a spiritual element gleaned from the world’s major religions.  A New Hope has far more in common with Flash Gordon serials (which Lucas originally wanted to adapt) than a Western, and the plot borrows liberally from Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai film, The Hidden Fortress.

Abrams failure to grasp this raises a whole lot of concerns on my part.  I’m just not sure he really understands the mythology and legacy behind Star Wars.  He certainly understands his feelings of Star Wars as a child, and how that impacted him as a youth, but there’s so much more to the Saga than one’s childhood memories and fantasies.  That’s a large reason that while on the one hand I enjoy the trailer immensely, on the other I worry that The Force Awakens will be little more than a nostalgia fest; something Abrams is intimately familiar with.

Han & ChewieFor a lot of fans, the final shot of Han & Chewie aboard the Millennium Falcon was the “money shot” and sent them over the moon as fanboy/fangirl chills ran up their spines.  The waves of nostalgia washed over them and they were filled with a sense of awe as their dreams were finally realized… George no longer had his hands in the Saga, all of their wildest Star Wars dreams could be realized.  For a brief moment I was even hit with a feeling of being that child who grew up with Star Wars back in 1977, waiting anxiously for the next installment and contenting myself with reading another issue of Marvel’s Star Wars in the meantime.  It was a wonderful moment, but as soon as the screen faded to black I realized that something about it felt very off to me.  I pondered about that shot for a good chunk of time until I realized I had seen all of this before… because I had a poster of it on my wall.

Han & Chewie

JJ was up to his old tricks… The shot is nothing more than a recreation of that iconic poster, and while it’s a nice nod it really speaks volumes about one of Abrams’ biggest weaknesses, and accentuates a growing concern I’ve had for months.

You see, one of the biggest knocks on Abrams has always been his lack of creativity as a filmmaker.  He’s always been involved in projects that on some level are derivative of other works.  Three of his past four motion pictures have been sequels of franchises, with the one exception, Super 8, being a complete knock off of a 1980’s Steven Spielberg film.  Even the TV series he’s produced have borrowed liberally from other works.  One of my favorite shows he produced, Alias, is nothing more than one part The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., one part X-Files, with a heavy dose of Dan Brown mythology.  When you look at the totality of his work there is really nothing there that screams “visionary,” or even suggests an artist who really has the ability to oversee the relaunch of a massive franchise… just look at his very hit and miss results with Star Trek.

JJ ArtooUltimately, his lack of his own creativity is his downfall as a filmmaker.  While Lucas could take all of these wildly divergent elements from myth, pop culture, and religion and massage it into it’s own self contained universe which felt original yet familiar. Abrams, on the other hand, has shown no such ability as an filmmaker.  His work routinely feels like a homage to another artist’s work, or a series of ideas slapped together in an effort to feel original, but wind up coming across as derivative.  This trailer does nothing but reinforce that point as there is no original substance to be found.  The one thing I can say about Lucas was he had an ability to tease you with new locales, strange aliens, and situations in each of the five teaser trailers that followed A New Hope.  Whether it’s battles in the snow, the forest, a high speed race through the deserts of Tatooine, raging storms over a water planet, or a deadly lightsaber duel on an erupting volcano, Lucas was always able to tantalize with new ideas.  JJ’s tease is little more than a complete rehash of the Original Trilogy with a new young trio surrounded by visuals and designs that are all comfortable and familiar.

And that leads to my biggest gripe and concern… I’m not convinced this film will be terribly original, and will in fact be little more than a soft reboot of the Saga, allowing Disney to distance itself from George’s Saga, and move forward, and frankly Disney has found the perfect guy for THAT job. While Abrams talks a lot about “moving the Saga forward” I’m not so certain with this trailer that Lucasfilm is really going to attract interest from young audiences.  The trailer really caters to older Star Wars fans, and if you are a young person who is not already invested in Star Wars there’s little in this trailer to suggest something new or fresh about the Saga.

We’re Going Back… To The Past!!!

Back-to-the-Future-Doc-BrownThere was an alarming exchange midway through the panel in which Katleen Kennedy seemed to suggest that fans reaction is a very important part of the storytelling process.  Of course she added the caveat that Lucasfilm will still tell the stories it wants, but there certainly was a not so subtle subtext running throughout her comments that said, “We’ve heard your cries.”  Well sorry, but fanboys should have pretty much no say so in the future of Star Wars.  Many of these “fans” are the same Lucas bashers who wanted boderline evil Anakin betraying the Jedi and exterminating them in a three arc story, forgetting the wise words of George, “…a monster becoming a monster isn’t a story.”   Storytelling by committee, and more importantly, by consensus is not art, it’s just catering to the mob.  It seems pretty safe to say that JJ’s mandate is to push every fanboy button, and weave a very safe Star Wars film which takes little to no risk, all in the hopes of avoiding controversy.  He will cater to their every whim; in fact JJ appears to be all in…

During his Force Awakens panel Abrams once again began to engage in Star Wars historical revisionism found among Prequel/Lucas bashers suggesting that his films were going to be more “tangible” and “real” because they built sets for the actors to interact with. Of course this is meant to imply that George moved away from this tradition and simply shot all of his films on digital stages in front of green screens.  Of course this completely ignores the dozens of sets and locations used for the filming of the Prequel Trilogy.  Lucas too desired a tangible look for his films, however he had to go another course.  Instead of dealing with a galaxy in the middle of a war he was examining a Republic in a state of decline, that is ultimately pushed over the ledge by Palpatine.  So on the one hand the universe had to be shiny, a little less used looking, while on the other hand still staying true to the rules he established in the universe.  I think he did a pretty darn good job:

imageimageimageimageimageimage

As you can clearly see these are real sets, designed and constructed by a group of talented artists who took weeks, and months to develop designs which could tell the story Lucas was trying to tell.  Each one of the Prequel films is filled with beautiful sets and locations, certainly enhanced with special effects, but if you don’t believe Jjj-abramsJ will be incorporating the same techniques, I’ve got some lovely beach front property in Yuma I can sell you. However, what really grinds my gears is that JJ is so willing to cavalierly dismiss the work on those films, all for the benefit of throwing around a few buzzwords that get fanboy hearts aflutter.

I used to work as an intelligence analyst back in the day with a focus on international politics… so words are really, really important to me, and what’s left unsaid, or implied by the words you are using is as important as what you actually say, or what you meant to say.  During one portion of the interview section of the show JJ states that the mandate he had was to “set a standard” and that everything had to feel real.  That’s a good enough sentiment, but then he takes it a step further; unnecessarily so: “You knew people were in those places.  The way the light interacts with the set.  You want it to be legitimate, and authentic.”  Abrams is clearly separating himself from Lucas here, and is making it clear, although unstated, that he’s going to make a movie for older Star Wars fans who felt burned by the Prequels.  To make matters worse he’s actually implying through his words that what George did in Episodes I-III was “inauthentic” and “illegitimate.” As if Lucas totally dismissed the use of practical sets and locations. I think as I’ve shown in the pictures above that was certainly not the case with the Prequels.

Lucas & DanielsAlso understated in the Force Awakens panel was any mention of Lucas, or even a hint of his involvement in the production. I think George’s name came up a whopping two times in the entire panel, despite the fact Lucas created this large sandbox that all of these people are playing in now. I’m really beginning to suspect that George’s statements from January that Disney had jettisoned his treatments for the Sequel Trilogy and were doing their own thing is true. Early on we were told Lucas and Abrams were meeting regularly, and Lucas’ son even suggested that George and JJ were texting daily. Then Star Wars scribe Michael Arndt, who was writing scripts based on George’s treatments was let go, and then Disney Studios honcho Alan Horn implied in a Q&A that he wasn’t aware of Lucas’ involvement in the project any more. That would certainly explain why Lucas is even barely given a mention at Celebration; even Lucas’ good friend Kathleen Kennedy only mentioned his name in passing while recounting how she became head of Lucasfilm.

imageFrankly, this troubles me a great deal. Much has been made of Abrams ability to weave a mythology in his television shows like Alias and Lost, but in the case of both shows, that mythology became a muddled mess as the shows wore on. Both shows did not find their footing again until AFTER Abrams had left the productions. Add to that his inability to understand the roots of the mythology behind the Star Wars Saga, and there is cause for concern. So excuse me if I have a lot more faith in the guy who actually created the universe, than a sometimes very talented filmmaker (Super 8) who is often prone to make materials that are devoid of real depth and miss the point of the source material (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Again, to be clear, I did enjoy the trailer, with certain reservations. My biggest concerns are not necessarily with the content of the trailer itself, but with Abrams’ apparent inability to grasp the magnitude of the depth of story telling that Lucas presented in his six part Saga. For all of Abrams’ talk of wanting to move the Saga “forward” for “a new generation,” this trailer seemed needlessly mired in the past, and shows little in the way of anything new or fresh. The trailer seems to be catered to a certain subset of fans who are still bitter at George Lucas for not giving them a Prequel Trilogy that had been brewing in their minds for nearly 20 years. Ultimately it feels like a trailer by put together by a marketing group:

Stormtroopers… check
Star Destroyer… check
Millennium Falcon in a fight… check
Vader… check

I really want The Force Awakens to be a film that launches fandom for a whole new generation of fans, but from what I’ve seen it looks like I’m stuck in a 1980’s time warp.

Force Awakens

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14 thoughts on “Star Wars – The Force Awakens Teaser Reaction

  1. Very interesting analysis. I myself was absolutely ecstatic upon seeing the new teaser. You make some very good points about JJ’s apparent grasp (or lack of a grasp) on the saga’s key ideals. But I’ll will probably reserve judgement on the guy until I walk out of the theatre on December 18th.

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    • Oh I will certainly reserve judgment as well and go in with an open mind. Just JJ’s comments are troubling to me. He sounds more like a political candidate trying to win your vote than a filmmaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Isn’t what you want Abrams to do with Star Wars, exactly what he did with Star Trek? And don’t you hate the stat trek reboot?

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    • I’m not a fan of “reimagining” franchises… I think its weak creatively. What I really dislike about Nu Trek (at east Into Darkness, I really liked the first JJ Trek film) was this dance he was doing trying to be “fresh” while still catering.

      You really can’t do both… either throw originality to the wind, or be original and just accept that some people will hate you for it.

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  3. Great synopsis … I still unfortunately am having mixed opinions about The Force Awakens.(I still don’t know how it’s supposed to be Episode VII of a larger saga thus far)
    The lack of George Lucas is really disturbing and I think we should get a definitive answer to WHAT he has done for this Sequel Trilogy .

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    • “I still don’t know how it’s supposed to be Episode VII of a larger saga thus far.”
      Had someone asked me e.g. in 2011 about a possible movie set after EP VI, I would have paraphrased Lucas: “The story in the movies is finished: Luke has become a real adult by finding his own way, and Anakin has fulfilled his destiny as the Chosen One. That is the story GL more or less wanted to tell even when it was a 12- or 9-part Saga. There is no real reason to shoot another movie.” The announcement of new movies was therefore a real surprise to me, but “softened” by the story involvement of GL. Maybe he had really found an interesting new perspective, an idea that he had during his work on TCW? If I had to make a list of artists/writers/filmmakers that could add something to the Saga, GL would always have been my number 1. No matter what you think about the execution (and for the record, I am a GL supporter), I think that he is always creative when it comes to story ideas.

      Maybe we will never really know what GL had in mind… Or only in a couple of decades. (GL seems to enjoy his retirement, and he has never really been interested in public fame, so I do not expect him to openly criticize the ST even if he does not like it.)

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      • Well I think there were a lot of ideas… especially concepts about the Force that Lucas examined, especially in the final Yoda arc that gave the Saga a sense of closure, while at the same time opening a small window for future stories. So when further movies were announced I was both hopeful and skeptical that it was possible, but I was willing to put my trust in George… now he’s gone.

        As for the rumors about Arndt being removed and his script being an “apology tour,” I find it very difficult to believe that Arndt, who was working closely with Lucas, would be apologizing for the Prequels at all, and in fact probably wrote a script with closer ties to the PT, binding the three trilogies together. Given what I’m seeing on the screen so far, and rumors of TFA’s plot I suspect what happened is JJ pitched an alternative story to Disney using the bare bones and structure of George’s treatments, and Disney went with that.

        I suspect that Disney, like most big corporations, wants to avoid risk and controversy at all costs, and have themselves bought into the nonsense that “everyone hated the Prequels” (NOTE to Disney go look at some photos of the line queues for AOTC and ROTS 3D which played this week, they had to turn people away), and fans feel betrayed by Lucas. Which explains why Disney rarely invokes George’s name any more, and is avoiding the PT with the exception of comics, books, and Rebels which are all ancillary products consumed by fans, not the general public. Disney knows there are PT fans so they throw them the occasional crumb because they know they will pay. But Disney as a whole, now gets to avoid George and his Saga altogether by focusing on a post-Jedi universe.

        The not so smart aspect about this is they are really missing the boat here. A lot of non fans I’ve spoken with who are waiting for the movie really don’t understand why Disney is going here since Jedi had a “happily ever after ending.” These non fans are far more interested in things like, “Where did the Jedi come from, in Episode 1 they talk about the Sith returning… where did they go, what happened?” There’s a lot of interest in the roots of the Saga…

        Finally, yeah I’m really hard on JJ. I used to be a pretty big fan of Abrams, but Into Darkness really bit me on the butt. When I walked out of the theater I thought the film was awesome, and I loved it…. when I finally bought the movie and really dug into it I realized it was a trainwreck. It was really a hollow, empty movie, with a nonsensical plot covered up by big dramatic moments meant to manipulate the audience and allow them to give the film a pass because of these heart felt moments. I then started looking at the rest of Abrams work and really began to see what a bad storyteller he actually is. Super 8 is a prime example… for nearly 2/3 of the film it is perfection, but the final act is a mess. It’s clear he wasn’t 100% positive how to wrap the story up so again he uses a bunch of emotion in certain scenes to cover his tracks. When you look critically at the final act you walk away with some serious questions, but JJ’s default answer seems to be “Mystery Box,” and that’s what’s funny. Like the magician who inspired the Mystery Box for JJ, he is nothing more than a salesman, a master at distraction. He wants you to be so worked up about the mystery of the story, because his story is so fragile, then he introduces all of these superfluous elements and characters designed to distract you away from the core of his film so you wont realize how weak the film really is.

        He was able to get away with it in Mission Impossible III, and the mysterious “Package” which is never revealed because that plot hook is one giant McGuffin, so whatever it is, or how it affects the motivations of characters, or it’s overall importance is, in the end, unimportant, it’s simply meant to propel the story forward. That worked great for that film, but look at both Trek films… the plots, character motivations, and story structure are all over the place.

        That’s why I have little faith in Abrams. I think he will put a stylish looking movie on the screen, filled with emotional scenes and performances the Saga has never seen before, but the plot… the themes will be a mess.

        As I told Mike Klimo the other day, this is the same guy who pitched and wrote the Mike Nichols/Harrison Ford film Regarding Henry, a film whose central theme is getting shot in the head makes you a better person.

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      • Thank you for your answer. I am not sure whether you are not too negative, but I think that we both agree that only time will and can tell.

        As for your suggested story idea: if I remember correctly, the ST was always supposed to focus on “philosophical” questions when it was envisioned back in the 70’s. I have read that – even in GL’s recent story treatments – Luke would (also) be on a quest for finding answers to fundamental questions regarding the Force So your thoughts and the questions asked by non-fans may indeed have been a subject in GL’s original ideas… Should that be true, it would have been very interesting, a sequel that at the same time tries to present the backstory and mythology of the SW universe.

        As for Disney “playing it safe:” there is certainly truth in this. They have invested a lot of money, and they do not want to create another trilogy that will be discussed for another decade. Maybe the ST will be divise for the “right” reasons, but – as you say – this does not have to be the case.

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  4. I managed to watch this new trailer in an airport waiting to leave on vacation, so I haven’t quite been steeping myself in repeat viewings of it so far. It may be, though, that I consider myself accepting enough of the (still relatively) “new” Star Wars movies that I sensed their absence with every “obvious” reference to the “old” ones, such that I’m not even sure I had the reaction you mention everyone else having to the final shot… Of course, even with the veiled allusions to “real sets” it did seem to be getting harder for me to suppose this movie is going to look “sparse” the way the older movies can begin to when I compare them to the newer ones, and it’s definitely not going to look like it was made with mid-1980s technology.

    That’s a very interesting comment from George Lucas, anyway. Perhaps I wonder, or fear, or both, that one day people may discuss his “original ideas for the sequel trilogy” the way his early drafts for Star Wars are now (to the point of a recent comic book adaptation of one of them)…

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  5. First of all, an interesting analysis – not necessarily of the trailer itself, but of the whole (current) goal of EP VII. (BTW, your analysis of the first teaser was really insightful – that’s what I want to read.)
    I must confess that the article sounds for me much more negative than you probably want and mean it to be. You are quite critical of JJ.
    That said, I think your conclusions are sound, and that there is the risk that this movie will not bring SW to a new generation, but rather cater to the OT-only fans.

    Do you have any additional information about Arndt being dropped as the writer for EP VII? I have heard this was done because his script was a “PT apology tour”, but what does this exactly mean? Apology for the prequels, or rather defense of them? (You may know what an apologist was in early Christianity. English is not my mother language, so I am not sure what to make out of “PT apology”.)

    And GL no longer being involved in the production of EP VII… Hard to tell whether this will not have a negative impact.

    It is at least good that the teaser mainly shows us the new characters (and I really like BB 8), and that the father of Luke is mentioned. And maybe the teaser shows this OT-only stuff just because the marketing department thinks that this will attract the average moviegoer more than the really new stuff of the movie. We don’t know. Your analysis however gives some good reasons why a Saga fan may be rather critical of the current situation.

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  6. Pingback: Learning to Let Go… | One Saga - An Exploration of the Star Wars Saga

  7. Good to see some people are actually thinking when it comes to TFA…your analysis is articulate and insightful…in my house we have been having constant discussions during Celebration streams about OT fanboy invective completely missing the point of the PT…that their understanding of the saga is firmly based on a B & W concept of good & evil… And it IS CLEAR that JJ is in that camp… My fear when I heard the announcement that he was to direct was that he would bring his brand of ‘fresh and original’ takes on ‘an old franchise’ to SW… hackneyed and miraculous plot devices such as Spock stranded on the same remote planet as Kirk (did anyone else question that?) or that red matter stuff that could do anything they wanted as long as it could service the action going forward…let’s not forget the hopelessly convoluted Khan plot with cringe-worthy exposition (Cumberbatch tried his best with at best a hopeless script)… now we have a desert planet that looks so much like Tatooine…why bother calling it Jakku? A snow planet that apparently is not Hoth? In Lucas’ universe each planet was distinctive… It gave audiences a clear sense of the vastness of the galaxy and provided spectacle and surprise in each film…if TFA is set 30 after ROTJ surely there would be mention of Coruscant, the historical seat of power? Because this, like other things, are derived from the PT such references are tarred with the same brush…but such omissions would be a grave mistake and deny the ST the complexity it deserves….

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