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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Elysium review: third world rock from the sun

Elysium green light Wagner Moura Matt Damon

Neill Blomkamp cements his science-fiction credentials as a filmmaker with a genre vision the likes of which we haven’t seen since the socially conscious SF of the 1970s.
I’m “biast” (pro): love District 9

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s not the revelation that his District 9 was, but with Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp cements his science-fiction credentials as a filmmaker with a genre vision the likes of which we haven’t seen since the socially conscious SF of the 1970s. In fact, the modern videogame-ish visuals aside, the film Elysium reminds me most of is 40-year-old Soylent Green. Certainly, Blomkamp’s depiction of the desperate poverty of the people of a depleted Earth — Los Angeles in 2154 looks like the favelas of Brazil or the townships of South Africa, with the suggestion that the whole planet is now essentially third-world — is a similarly hellish vision… and yet it’s one that divides the haves from the have-nots in a way that is incisively of the 20-teens moment. For in Blomkamp’s future-that-is-now, the wealthy have decamped to a luxurious wheel in space that hangs in the sky. The 99.99 percent are taunted every day by the privilege above that they are excluded from. (Rare, too, in 21st-century SF is the notion of the future as bleak, and of futuristic imagery once full of promise and optimism, as the space wheel of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was, turned into a menacing, misleading lie. Only the Wachowskis with The Matrix — 14 years ago — managed a similar sly trick recently.)

But if this is Soylent Green, it is, perhaps, Soylent Green with a solution, so it’s not all bleak. And this is a uniquely 20-teens idea, too: that even on a planet that is getting used up, there is still more then enough to go around, it’s just that we’re not sharing it fairly. So here we have Earthbound humans taking outrageous risks to sneak onto Elysium, that elite space station, just for the chance to lie in a med-pod and be cured, in seconds, of whatever terrible sickness or injury ails them. (There’s a black market in tattoos that ID one as a citizen of Elysium eligible for such treatment.) It costs, apparently, literally nothing to use a med-pod: no resources, except perhaps the energy to run the device, are required. But it is hoarded jealously by Elysium’s .001 percent, out of pure meanness, it would seem.

This is the world of Max (Matt Damon: Promised Land, We Bought a Zoo), a former felon now factory worker — he helps build the army of robot cops that police Earth, literally creating the tools of his own oppression — who had all but given up on the impossible dream of his boyhood of getting to Elysium. But now an accidental mega-dosing of radiation on the assembly line means he’ll be dead in days unless he can get to a med-pod…

The path to achieving that goal is littered with all manner of intriguing science-fictional concepts: technological ones, such as a brain-to-brain data heist and exoskeleton powered armor that gets drilled directly into one’s body rather than being worn like a suit (I haven’t come across this before); and sociological ones, such as the android bureaucrats those on Earth are forced to deal with that, like the robot cops, remove all possibility of human empathy or understanding from necessary interactions, further dehumanizing the masses the elite would rather not have to deal with at all. It’s a tiny bit disappointing that, amongst all this imaginative speculation, Blomkamp couldn’t see past tedious clichés about women in cinematic storytelling: Alice Braga (On the Road, Predators) is here as Max’s friend Frey, and she has nothing to do but take care of Max — literally: she’s a nurse — and then require rescuing by him from Elysium operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley: Europa Report, The A-Team). Kruger’s rapey threats toward Frey are, I suppose, meant to illustrate what a terrifying psychopath he is — which works; Copley is truly chilling — but surely there were other ways to accomplish that. In fact, there’s no reason at all why Braga and Damon couldn’t have swapped roles, particularly with the exoskeleton to even out the physical differences between her and male badasses. Having Jodie Foster (Carnage, The Brave One) on hand to play a villainous Elysium politician doesn’t quite make up for the lazy easiness of Frey as an impetus for Max, particularly when there are so many other things already driving him.

Things get a bit rushed and silly at the end, too: I’m not sure the ultimate solution for the big problems of this world makes much sense… although the situation that allows it is, on the other hand, beautifully representative of the utter disdain the people of Elysium have for the rest of humanity. But Elysium’s flaws are forgivable, because it tries so much and reaches so far and mostly succeeds. Not many filmmakers in Hollywood dare like this at all. Having something to say that doesn’t sound like a greeting card is an almost astonishing place for a summer blockbuster to be.

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Elysium (2013)
US/Can release: Aug 9 2013
UK/Ire release: Aug 21 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated SFFP (contains science fiction of future past)
MPAA: rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language, bloody violence and gory images)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • OnceJolly

    I had a much less favorable view of the movie. My impression is that Blomkamp became enamoured with a concept, but had little interest in applying any real thoughtfulness to his premise. And for a movie that hints at wanting to be a thoughtful allegory, this lack of thought works to undermine the entire movie.

    SPOILERS TO FOLLOW (roti13 encoded):

    Zl znva ceboyrz jvgu gur zbivr vf gung abar bs Rylfvhz’f frphevgl zrnfherf npghnyyl znxr nal frafr, naq bayl frrz gb rkvfg gb xrrc gur cybg zbivat. Va cnegvphyne, yvivat ba n fcnpr fgngvba znxrf bar ihyarenoyr va jnlf gung yvivat va n tngrq pbzzhavgl ba rnegu qbrf abg (yvsr fhccbeg orvat n xrl vffhr). Vg’f abg pyrne jul frphevgl zrnfherf jbhyq or fb pninyvre va nyybjvat fcnpr pensg gb rira trg arne, ohg va Rylfvhz, hanhgubevmrq fcnprfuvcf pna ernpu nal cneg bs gur fgngvba jvgubhg orvat pbagrfgrq hagvy qrobneqvat.

    Gur pvgvmrafuvc gnggbbf ner abafrafr. Rira gbqnl, fnygb xrlf erdhver ertvfgengvba jvgu n pbzchgre flfgrz. Tvira gung Rylfvhz unf n pragenyvmrq pbzchgre flfgrz, gurer vf ab ernfba gb oryvrir gung bayl n culfvpny znexre vf arrqrq gb cebir pvgvmrafuvc. Ubj vf Fcvqre noyr gb ertvfgre obthf pvgvmraf? Naq vs ur’f nyernql noyr gb vasvygengr gur flfgrz sebz Rnegu, jul qbrf ur arrq gb trg Znk gb Rylfvhz?

    Svanyyl, gur “cbvfba cvyy” gung nppbzcnavrf gur qngn gung Znk pneevrf qbrfa’g freir nal npghnyyl frphevgl checbfr, hayrff fbzrbar nggrzcgvat hanhgubevmrq ergevriny bs gur qngn vf jbeevrq nobhg xvyyvat gur pneevre. Fb gur bayl ernyyl checbfr (nybat jvgu nccneragyl gur bayl erny ernfba sbe Oentn’f punenpgre) vf gb perngr gur snyfr qenzn bs Znk’f znegleqbz.

  • bronxbee

    i haven’t seen the movie, but *man* i’m loving the coded spoilers… i can’t decode them either, but it looks very elegant.

  • RogerBW

    rot13.com can handle the decoding for you.

  • OnceJolly

    Gunaxf…V guvax.

  • OnceJolly

    Tvira gung gur zrqvcbqf jbhyq arrq gb jbex ng gur zbyrphyne yriry (naq or noyr gb erpbtavmr trargvp pbqr), gurer vfa’g nal arrq sbe gur vqragvsvpngvba oenaqf ng nyy, ng yrnfg sbe erfgevpgvat npprff gb gur qrivprf gurzfryirf. Gur oenaqf nyfb frrz gb or erznexnoyl rnfl gb pbhagresrvg. Naq tvira gung Rylfvhz vf njner bs gur pbhagresrvgvat, gur nccnerag ynpx bs pbhagre-zrnfherf ersyrpgf rkgerzryl cbbeyl ba gur pbzcrgrapl bs gur bayl srznyr punenpgre va n cbfvgvba bs cbjre.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Wow, you were really way more forgiving of this movie than I could ever be. I’ll second OnceJolly: this is a high concept, lazily executed, B-grade homeage to/rip off of early-’70s dystopia sci-fi. The comparison to Soylent Green is apt, but Elysium does not compare favorably even to that.
    The whole setup here is about as subtle as a trainwreck and slightly dumber.

    It costs, apparently, literally nothing to use a med-pod: no resources, except perhaps the energy to run the device, are required. But it is hoarded jealously by Elysium’s .001 percent, out of pure meanness, it would seem.

    This is a major, story-breaking problem for the movie. It’s one thing to depict the privileged as evil when they horde a vital but rare resource. The entire attitude presented by the two residents of Elysium that are allowed both speaking lines and more than 30 seconds of screen time makes no sense. To call Jodie Foster’s character cartoonish (to say nothing of Sharlto Copley’s) would be to insult the sophistication of the average cartoon villain.

    And besides, it’s just a box, about the size of a sofa. The movie offers no reason why they would all be on the space station. The plot relies on attempts to smuggle lots of people onto the station. Would it not make more sense, and be a hell of a lot easier, to smuggle one of the magic boxes off?

    I will say this for Matt Damon’s character: for a guy who grew up speaking Spanish in early-mid-22nd century Los Angeles, he managed to develop a spectacular 20th century Bostonian accent.

  • Harold Hill

    A Blood Bath Wall-E!… but this is trash even Wall-E wouldn’t even go near to scoop up!

  • Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley had fun, so I had fun… but otherwise, not really a major success. Except in the sense that it establishes Neill Blomkamp as the most competent user of CGI VFX in Hollywood – seriously, the VFX work in this was both appropriately subdued and utterly flawless.

  • Could you explain why you feel this way, instead of merely dropping a wiseass comment without any context?

  • The movie offers no reason why they would all be on the space station.

    They’re hoarding the goodness because they can. It’s not like we don’t do that here on Earth, too.

    Would it not make more sense, and be a hell of a lot easier, to smuggle one of the magic boxes off?

    Perhaps it requires the computer on Elysium to work. But also: it’s clear in the film that it takes mere moments in the machine to cure at least some people… and then, even when you get deported immediately, you’re still better off.

    A plan to get a machine off would likely require cooperation from an Elysium citizen or two, if only because of the extra time it would take to steal a med-pod.

  • I’m not sure this encoding is necessary. A spoiler warning will do.

    As for your objections: I can’t deny any of them are true. But they didn’t bother me while I was watching the film.

  • OnceJolly

    They’re hoarding the goodness because they can. It’s not like we don’t do that here on Earth, too.

    Best parallel I can think of is patented drugs. However, they’re still available at a price (far above cost of production). A group gets denied because it undermines the profitability of the product. Elysium hints at a middle class still living on Earth. I agree with Rocket on this one; Elysium hasn’t given any thought to its economics.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    They’re hoarding the goodness because they can. It’s not like we don’t do that here on Earth, too.

    I’m wracking my brain, but I can’t think of any real world thing that has this much value with this little cost and is only available in a small region, with absolutely no humanitarian groups from that region bringing at least a limited amount of it out to the rest of the world. (OK, maybe In-n-Out burgers.) It just goes to the total lack of subtlety in this story. This tech only exists on Elysium because if it didn’t, Max would go there instead, and Jodie Foster would give two shits.

    Perhaps it requires the computer on Elysium to work.

    Well, “perhaps” a lot of things. But the script doesn’t bother to even indicate what any of those things might be. Forget “show, don’t tell”. Blomkamp forgets to even tell us how is world actually works.

    A plan to get a machine off would likely require cooperation from an Elysium citizen or two

    Yes, this is true. This plan has the best chance to work if one or two citizens, out of potentially tens of thousands, to behave like human beings, not extras. Those one or two people don’t even have to be nice human beings. They don’t have to be trying to make the world better, or to right the injustice. Someone on Earth just has to offer them a metric shit-tonne of money.

    In any kind of real world, populated by any kind of real people, the technology this movie presents simply cannot be isolated like this. And that is a story-breaking problem.

  • I can’t think of any real world thing that has this much value with this little cost

    It’s an exaggeration, obviously — the whole movie is. But, for one, the reason people are starving right now on Earth is not because of a lack of food.

  • OnceJolly

    And the reason they’re not getting that food is because they can’t afford it. Either the economic system doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to earn the income to purchase it, or they are simply outbid for other uses (corn is more valuable as feedstock for biofuels for wealthier customers). Or rather than selling grains to the poor, it makes more sense (in terms of profitability) to feed them to livestock to satisfy the taste for meat of middle-class consumers.

    A lot of themes that Elysium hints at (accessibilty of health care, environmental degradation, over-population, etc.) aren’t really explored anyhow. One of the contemporary questions is why policy moves in directions that seems to be at odds with the interests of significant segments of the global population. In Elysium, the answer is “because robots.” And so of course the solution at the end of the movie makes a kind of sense. But it has no immediate bearing on the situation in our world, where control is apparently achieved through subtler means.

    I suppose you could view the whole movie as a precautionary note about the rise of drone technology. But even if this was the intention, I don’t think the movie does anything well (hackneyed dramatic elements, total generic action plotting that I’ve already seen in dozens of other movies).

  • OnceJolly

    Even trying to tie together the various issues that get token acknowledgment in Elysium (Occupy sentiments about income distribution, illegal immigration, environmental degradation) is problematic.

    My understanding of deforestation in the Amazon is that a lot of it is driven by claiming land for either cattle-grazing or soybean cultivation for livestock in Europe. These activities only make economic sense (where I’m using the word “sense” very loosely) if there is a significant middle-class population able to afford these goods. The “one percent” may profit from such activity, but their own meat consumption could easily be met using existing grazing land in the United States and Europe.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It’s an exaggeration, obviously — the whole movie is.

    Most of the movie presents a world that’s a reasonable extension of our own. If anything, given that it’s set almost 150 years in the future, it’s too conservative on the advances of technology. Only the med-pods are exaggerated. So that just makes the movie tonally inconsistent.

    the reason people are starving right now on Earth is not because of a lack of food.

    Food is expensive. It requires vast amounts of land, water, and manpower just to produce. Then more material, fuel, and manpower to distribute. Even in the U.S. and U.K., two of the wealthiest nations in the world, neither of us eats for free. And while humanitarian efforts to get food to the poorest nations are desperately underfunded, they do, in fact, exist. Because that’s how real people behave.

    A med-pod requires nothing more than a power outlet. And I’m not even 100% sure about that. It’s as likely to run on unicorn farts, as far as we are told.

    This isn’t a difficult story problem to solve. All that’s needed is one reasonable reason why the med-pods are so jealously guarded, or why they only work on Elysium. That wouldn’t have helped with how the movie gets, not just silly, but increasingly stupid as it goes along. But it wouldn’t have been broken from the set-up.

  • OnceJolly

    SPOILERS to follow:

    Given that Elysium is a political movie, it is worth considering what it’s politics are. Given the future that has been realized, and the solution at the end of the movie, it’s clearly not a movie that supports democratic governance. Indeed, the only people that explicitly appear to endorse democratic values (albeit with extremely limited voting rights) are the citizens of Elysium. Nor is it a movie that has socialist values (at least as I understand them) as it outright dismisses any notion that the denizens of earth are capable of organizing and improving their lives. Instead, the message is that the only real possible solution is to have all the means of production administered under a centralized computer, which will allow a benevolent dictator to seize control and administer the entire apparatus for humanity’s benefit.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    This is a very astute observation.

    This is part of a problem in both of Blomkamp’s films to date: his protagonists (Max and Wikus) are generally well-written, three dimensional, easily relatable characters, but no one else in his stories (particularly the antagonists) behave in recognizably human ways.

  • jdevo

    a: If it cost nothing to work a medpod it could cost a lot to build a medpod. b. who says it cost nothing to operate? Where does all those artificial cells and biomass come from. c. there is a real rational reason why the medpod is not available for everyone. This is a earth that is overpopulated and stripped of natural resources. The furthest thing from a solution to this is to have everyone be virtually immortal. In fact that is my biggest problem with the film. The ending is way to optimistic. First when the med ships landed on earth there would be huge riots to get to them and they would probably get destroyed in the process and second now what? Now there are even more people and the earth is even more overpopulated

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    a: If it cost nothing to work a medpod it could cost a lot to build a medpod.

    That would justify there being very few of them on Earth. The plot demands that there are none planetside – nada, zero, zilch.

    b. who says it cost nothing to operate?

    The movie doesn’t indicate that there is any cost of operation. It certainly doesn’t tell us what makes the things work, and all it shows us is 3 people, two of whom are “illegals”, climbing into the thing and getting decancerified.

    This is a earth that is overpopulated and stripped of natural resources. The furthest thing from a solution to this is to have everyone be virtually immortal.

    I wondered if anyone else would bring this up. But here’s the thing: this is also a problem for the movie. If there’s anywhere in this movie where resources are going to be terrifyingly scarce, it’s going to be on Elysium. On a space station, even breathable air is going to be a carefully monitored resource. That’s where virtual immortality is going to be a real problem. And yet, no one on Elysium seems to give the slightest indication of concern. The people there are having children, for god’s sake. Where do they plan to put all these people?

  • OnceJolly

    That the Earth is overpopulated and depleted is really nothing more than a flimsy excuse to justify the existence of Elysium in the first place. It’s completely irrelevant to anything that follows. Since Elysium is really a gated community rather than a country, there is no real prospect of immigrating to the station. The medpods serve a singular purpose; to give people a reason to want desperately to get there when any prospect of actual migration is effectively nil. I doubt Blomkamp had interest in thinking out their implications; they serve a single function with regards to plot.

    There is no working allegory here, about illegal immigration, or anything else. Given that the earth is still habitable, there isn’t even a reason for Elysium; to the best of my knowledge, even in countries with high population densities and high levels of pollution, the wealthy are generally able to isolate themselves from the worst negative effects.

  • OnceJolly

    I don’t claim any particular originality with the following observation (though I don’t have anyone in particular to credit): Blomkamp is making movie adaptions of video games that don’t actually exist. With Elysium in particular, we have the kind of inventive, yet typically flimsy backstory that is common to all kinds of games. I played Half Life 2 a number of years ago (and still occasionally check to see if the final part will ever be released) and though I thoroughly enjoyed the immersion in the world that the designers created (I really did have the sensation of having visiting another place), I have at best a best a fuzzy idea of what was going on (my understanding wasn’t much better immediately after the game).

    Of course, with a movie, the nature of the immersion is different, and so Blomkamp has to do some character building as well. However, while I agree that Wikus was three dimensional, I thought Max disappeared (or become just another generic action character) right after he was radiated. Given that I really had no emotional investment in the movie from that point onwards, it was pretty easy to find flaws in the movie’s premise.

    I don’t think District 9 is that much better. I liked that they chose Johannesburg, enjoyed the visuals, and was able to stay engaged with the action (because Wikus stays in character throughout). However, I didn’t find the allegory especially effective or remarkable.

  • OnceJolly

    @Rocket: I probably should have replied to jdevo, since you’ve already pointed out most of what I’ve said above.

  • Anthony

    I’ve seen the “Occupy” and “99% vs 1%” references tossed around in several other critiques of the film, but I feel that’s off the mark. Not by any fault of the critic, but simply by the context in which the comparison is made: having lived in Latin America for decades, I have to say that Elysium is a very transparent (extremely transparent) allegory of illegal immigration from Mexico into the US, and the withholding of life-saving medical treatment from said illegals.

    Yes, the dilapidated shantytowns (which really exist; Blomkamp shot on location) evoke an atmosphere of overpopulated, Soylent Green-style dystopia, but when Foster’s Delacourt starts using highly specific terms such as “undocumented,” “illegals,” and “deportation” and siccing “Homeland Security” on them; when there is a semi-political, ultranationalist movement to protect Elysium’s “borders” with deadly force even against the unarmed “undocumented;” when “coyotes” load space-buses full of illegals, charge exorbitant prices for tickets, and make a run for the border with falsified IDs; when the entire environment is a Mexican Spanish-speaking slum, in which ALL but four Earth-borne characters are Latinos with Spanish names (Max, Kruger, Max’s boss and the unnamed doctor being the only exceptions;) when the rich American conglomerate operates maquiladoras in said Latino slums, with nary a worry for the well-being of its workers; when the high-ranking exec is targeted for kidnapping and theft by criminals with narco-style paramilitary tactics; and, most telling, when the ultimate goal is to grant everyone citizenship so they can share Elysium’s boons? Well, there’s just too many coincidences for the film to be about anything BUT illegal immigration. And while all other themes surrounding the allegory –haves vs. have-nots, overpopulation, environmental decline, classism, etc.– are universal enough to appeal to any context, in the end the film fails to explore them at all, using them only as a backdrop to further typify the more immediate plight of poor immigrants.

    Now, a lot can be said about Damon and Copley’s… performances (not a lot good, sorry to say,) but my main problem with the film is that, in creating this “Elysium:USA::Future Los Angeles:Mexico” allegory, it created the catastrophic implication that Latino immigration into LA is what left it in shambles in the first place, forcing the richer, whiter population to flee to its gated community in orbit. Far too often have I run into right-leaning critiques PRAISING Blomkamp for showing the “horrifying result” of unchecked immigration, and this is a terrifying perspective.

    Perhaps it’s because District 9 used actual aliens for its allegory, but the director’s previous work felt more nuanced, less aggressive in its presentation (it certainly didn’t give much room for the above interpretation.) In the end, Elysium feels more like a District 9 that has surrendered itself to Hollywood excess: more gore, more action, more plot holes, more railroading for the sake of spectacle/symbolism, and less coherent characters.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    The resource allocation makes sense when you think of Elysium as a movie about immigration, rather than economics. The citizens of Elysium aren’t hoarding anything, they’ve just closed their borders.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    think of Elysium as a movie about immigration, rather than economics

    You say that as though those are separate, or even separable, issues. It’s also not what the movie is about. Max doesn’t want to move to Elysium, he wants to retrieve a MacGuffin from Elysium (his health, in this case), knowing full well he’ll be coming right back to L.A.

    Still, I think Blomkamp also believes his movie is about immigration, divorced from economics. That would explain – but not excuse – why he didn’t think through the economics of the world he set up.

  • Rod Ribeiro


    If the pods only worked on Elysium, why would they be sent to Earth in the end?

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that since the pods do work on Earth, and appear to run on some form of electricity (and nothing else), it stretches plausibility that they would exist only on Elysium. At some point, someone would have smuggled, if not a working pod, then the schematics for one, off of the station. Should be a lot easier to get something the size of a sofa off the stations, rather than dozens or hundreds of human beings onto it. Also, the residents of Elysium are greedy assholes just like everyone else. They wouldn’t be able to sell those things off fast enough. The movie lacks a good reason what that’s not happening.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    I totally agree. But let’s assume MAJ’s theory is right. We basically don’t know IF there is scarcity that justifies it being restricted to Elysium. If there is not, however, wouldn’t they send the pods to Earth to deal with the immigration issue, instead of blowing up potential trespassers in space (bonus: increased workforce productivity)? If there is, the correct ending should be the central computer it in Elysium stating that there aren’t enough resources to cure all citizens, and whole quest to reboot the system would have been proved pointless. That would have been an awesome ending, actually!

  • Rod Ribeiro

    There is the pesky problem of who pays for drug development if it is sold at production cost. However, countries with national health systems do buy drugs at discounted prices, citizenship serving as one of the major ways to avoid arbitrage.

    By the way, there is no economic sense in claiming lands from rainforests for cattle or soy, because hardwood is so much more valuable than beef. It all starts with illegal logging.

  • Jason

    Your pulling at straws. This movies garbage two dimensional junk. The Graphics are wonderful but the producer should had invested more in the writing staff and maybe brought in some policy wonks to avoid having this movie come off like a third graders fantasy. Glad your putting that degree to work.

  • Two-dimensional? Policy wonks? Third grader’s fantasy? Degree?

    I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. But you’re going to have to explain your disagreement better.

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