Last Action Heroes: How 1990s Blockbusters Swapped Thugs for Thinkers

Science fiction stories have always mirrored their own eras. They’re a time capsule as much as they are a vision of the future, and few decades offer as rapid a change on screen as the sci-fi films of the 1990s.

You're listening to The
Companion's audio articles, a

new series that features our
best stories on The Companion.

I'm Rebecca Davis. In the early
days of The Companion, a promise

was made to put forth the effort
to cover 90s science fiction. As

a generation of science fiction,
film and television, and one

that happened to include the
member favourite Stargate

franchise, it just seemed like
the right place, or should I say

time to focus on the following
article epitomises that promise

covering the shift in the 90s
from muscle power to brain

power, from Arnold to Keanu. I
like to think of this article as

one of a 90s trilogy found in
our pilot season. For a personal

review of Total Recall, the film
mentioned in this article as the

starting point of this shift in
sci fi heroes take a listen to

Philip K Dick's wife Tessa B
Dick's review of the film. For

more in depth discussion of the
groundbreaking decade-capping

The Matrix, try Transgender
Allegory, Applicability and Me

by Ell Twine. Last Action Heroes
how 1990s blockbusters swapped

thugs for thinkers by Katherine

Caution, this article contains
plot points from Total Recall,

Terminator 2: Judgement Day,
Universal Soldier, Alien3,

Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic,
Independence Day, Men in Black

The Fifth Element, Starship
Troopers, Alien Resurrection,

Armageddon, Deep Impact, The
Wild Wild West and – phew – The

Matrix and in some cases reveals
the ending.

How do you measure such an
astonishing moment?

Many of them is the world wide
wide vainly it makes sense. But

what what's going on American

have voted to make a new

science fiction stories have
always mirrored their own eras

their societal or cultural fears
and anxieties, the potential of

technological advancement their
time capsule as much as they are

a vision of the future, and few
decades offer as rapid change on

screen as the 1990s. The
aftermath of the power shifts in

1989 sparked waves of revolution
across the globe, including the

fall of the Berlin Wall and the
end of the Cold War. Towards the

end of the 90s, the importance
of the US Military Industrial

Complex was overshadowed by the
Tech Computer industry as it

grew in power and scale. The
landscape was changing, and the

heroes changed with it. Anyone
with a keyboard and internet

connection could now change the
world. There was no need for big

muscles and biceps. As the
metaphysical took over. You

could arm yourself with
information while ordering a

pizza. That shift can clearly be
seen in Hollywood's blockbuster

heroes. They transformed in
appearance and their tech tapped

into the way people had started
to use the internet to challenge

the status quo. The rebellion
against the cold hard capitalism

of the Reagan-Bush
Administrations can be seen in

the anti establishment figures
presented in the 1990s heroes

were afforded the power to
question authority and enact

change through a combination of
brute force and selfless acts.

The need for a certain type of
machismo dwindled and was

satirised on numerous occasions,
and the cyber hero movie even

got the green light from a major
studio. The Internet offered a

place where reality could
literally be manipulated and

identity was anonymous or fluid.
The way we lived, our lives was

changing and sci fi films
explored not only the

psychological impact of the
fabric of reality coming apart,

but the way the Internet can be
integral to acts of rebellion

against the status quo.

1000s and 1000s of West Germans
come to make the point that the

wall has suddenly become
irrelevant. Something as you can

see almost a party on how do you
measure such an astonishing

moment in history. The East
German government said tonight

they were going to make more
openings in the wall at least a

dozen more. Put bulldozers right
through the wall so that more

people could cross to the west

1990 to 1992 the last action

Now let me see, basic Mars
package will run you 899

credits. Now that's for two full
weeks and memories complete in

every detail. If you want a
longer trip that will cost a

little more because it's a
deeper implant. What's in the

two week package? Well, first of
all, Doug, let me tell you when

you go recall, you get nothing
but first class memories.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was
undeniably the go to sci fi

action star in the early 90s.
And his five time Mr. Universe

winning frame was utilised by
two major directors in very

different ways at the start of
the decade, in the summer of

1990 Paul Verhoeven ultraviolent
adaptation of Philip K Dick's We

Can Remember It For You
Wholesale was released as Total

Recall, Arnie plays construction
worker Quaid, whose belief in

the structure of reality begins
to dissolve when his memory

suggests he has lived an
entirely different life. His

recurring nightmares place him
on Mars as a secret agent, and

when he enters into a VR
simulation that pleases him in

that very scenario, it leads him
to question his whole existence.

Verhoeven has always been ahead
of his time and total recalls

themes would dominate the
Hollywood sci fi action

blockbuster in the latter part
of the decade. In stark contrast

to the one-note early 80s
beefcakes. He was famous for

Arnie's bulging physique is
filled with confusion and

vulnerability. In reality, there
was a shift in his role choices

at this point due to his
preparation to enter the

political arena and his
affiliation with Republican

President George Bush.

Governor elect

Arnold Schwarzenegger is 50%
believe that he has a favourable

approval rating a defeat
completely for Ray Davis, but

certainly Mr. Schwarzenegger is
as of now, the projected winner

a heart condition

would dictate his workload and
role choices later in the

decade. But in J Hoberman is
1991 sight and sound feature

Nietzsche Man, Arnie was
described as a man's man, or

rather a man, Superman, or
perhaps the simulation of man's

Superman. The waiver havens
movie is constructed by

continually reconstructing
quaids perspective forces the

viewer to reevaluate what
they've just seen on screen. As

the filmmaker fits big ideas
into the Hollywood blockbuster

mould. A distorted reality is
presented about a construction

worker who sees beyond the news
headlines uncovers corruption,

and brings it all toppling down
to define a new world order. It

all feeds into the politics of
the previous decade. With

Verhoeven using Arnie's muscle
bound law abiding persona in an

ironic anti establishment
fashion. No, you don't have to

do that.

No, don't do it.

It has to end here.

Are you not to go? I already not
to go home

don't know why you cry. But it's
something I can never do.

Another director who was
mastering his craft in this era

was James Cameron, the man who
launched Arnie into the

mainstream in 1984 with
Terminator and who use the

sequel Terminator 2: Judgement
Day to advocate for world peace.

The villain is now a hero. I'll
be it's still a robotic killing

machine, who learns about
humanity and is taught empathy

from a young John Connor. It's a
film where everyone is searching

for their humanity, including an
incredibly buff Linda Hamilton

as Sarah Connor. Cameron
envisioned a softer, kinder male

sci fi action hero and in
juxtaposition, a wilder, more

aggressive female hero. Both
evolve over the course of the

film as they battle against a
common enemy in the form of

SkyNet's police-disguised
T-1000. Released in the summer

of 1991, following the end of
the Gulf War camera depicts a

world on the brink of a dusty
apocalypse. Universal Soldier

seemed content to continue on
where Terminator left off. With

AI controlled cryogenically
frozen Vietnam soldiers

reanimated in the present day.
John Claude Van Damme plays the

hero, who begins to suffer
PTSD-induced flashbacks after a

malfunction, teaming up with
journalist Veronica Ali Walker

as a comedic sidekick to defeat
his sadistic government

sanctioned comrade Dolph
Lundgren. Again you can see the

vulnerability trickling out from
the beefcake outer shell with

the film's themes of trauma,
national shame and the ravages

of war told via the heroes
narrative. Yet still, the hero

walks around buck naked and
cocksure, showing off his

powerful physique and quite
literally flaunting his

virility. To save the day he
sleeps with a journalist and

engages in an elongated
kickboxing fight. It's pure sex

and violence for the most part
that offers its hero the sweet

denouement of a safe return
home. It's here you got Clemens.

Foolish woman Blackstein family

Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley
is a bonafide iconic hero, born

in the 1980s and resuscitated as
a martyr in David Fincher's

Alien3. Over the 90s, Ripley
appeared in two Alien films, and

each time she evolved and
mutated to tie in with

contemporary issues. This is the
one where Ripley shaves her head

is impregnated by the Alien and
dies at the end. Pointedly,

there are hardly any guns in
clear juxtaposition to Cameron's

Aliens, but there's still lots
of blood and guts flying about

two years old, is a deadly
disease and there is no known

cure In the year where Tom Hanks
won the Oscar for his

performance as a man who was
diagnosed with HIV and fights

for his rights as his body is
ravaged by the AIDS virus in

Philadelphia, the critics tied
Ripley's battle for survival to

the disease. Renowned critic
Philip Strick described this

incarnation of Ripley as a
psychotic at war with a poison

inside her in his S&S review.
Fellow S&S critic Amy Taubin

also acknowledged the AIDS
crisis and abortion rights as

integral to understanding the
heroine's eventual sacrifice,

stating by choosing to hurl
herself over the brink rather

than bend to the will of the
state, the hero guarantees her

transformation from woman to
myth. On reflection, Ripley is

reeling from grief from the
death of her crew while also

forming an alliance with a gay
character, illustrating the film

stance against homophobia. The
conservative male anxieties

about the nuclear family central
to the Alien films from the

previous decade, are swapped to
show Ripley's POV as she

attempts to navigate the
dangerous territory inhabited by

religious celibate male
prisoners convicted of rape and

murder. It's a startling
depiction of how the female body

is viewed and debated in society
and the political arena. In an

interview published in imagine
movies magazine, venture

explained his desire to depart
from the 1980s depiction of this

character. The idea was not to
make a whiz bang shoot 'em up.

But to deal with this character,
let's put a 40 year old woman in

outer space not an underwear
clad victim like in the first

Alien. He viewed the Alien
franchise as a reaction to the

yuppie ideal and capitalism, and
he depicted Ripley as a

progressive feminist hero for
the times. At the heart of the

character, he explained is her
martyrdom, sacrifice the idea

that sacrifice was a noble
capitalist alternative, we've

come full circle and realise
that selflessness is as

important as selfishness in
order to survive. That change

was reflected in the political
mood at the time

where high hopes and brave
hearts and massive numbers the

American people have voted to
make a new began.

1993 March this switch to a
democratic government and the

presidency of Bill Clinton,
which lasted into the new

millennium. It also marked the
end of Arnie seven year unbroken

reign as one of the top 10
highest grossing stars at the US

box office. 1993 To 1996 self
aware sunsets and signs of life.

I'm happy that you're happy, but
the place where you're supposed

to have the toilet paper, you
got this little shelf with three

seashells on it. He doesn't know
how to use the three seashells.

I can see how that could be
confusing all believer

ideals, tastes and politics were
changing and Hollywood

desperately rushed to keep up
with it

all. Fire after fire after fire
kept breaking out all over the

city primarily in businesses and
businesses, which probably will

not be able to reestablish
themselves once the riot is


The media attention and debates
that unfolded after the verdict

from the Rodney King trial and
the LA 92 protests highlighted

racial discrimination and police
brutality. At the same time, the

major part that computer
technology was having on

everyday life, including
Microsoft launching Internet

Explorer, played into the way
the hero adapted and who they

teamed up with to save the day.
First up, there was some

unfinished business to handle
between three major stars of the

era. Sylvester Stallone, Sandra
Bullock, and Wesley Snipes all

appeared in Demolition Man, a
self reflexive comedy that

directly satirise the
fetishization of the archetypal

male heroes who played by their
own rules predominant in buddy

cop in action movies. To quote
the film these men are now

considered brutish fossils.
Violence has been wiped out in

the future in this sci fi satire
set in the fictional San Angeles

clearly a standard for
Hollywood. But when dangerous

criminals Simon Phoenix Snipes,
is mysteriously reanimated from

cryogenic prison is up to old
school cop John Spartan Stallone

to take him down. Bulloch place
peaceful law enforcement officer

Lemina Huxley, who teamed up
with Spartan and places the old

school hero on something of a
pedestal with tongue in cheek

humour, continually misquoting
their one liners to Spartan's

amusement. It's a movie that's
predominantly focused on

commenting on the action hero in
movies, while idly throwing in

hot button topics. Hollywood was
beginning to move on from the

bulging beefcake sci fi hero,
and this group of expendables

was certainly aware of changing
tastes. So much so that even

Arnie's popularity and political
aspirations are parodied in the

film through the Arnold
Schwarzenegger presidential


Well, what do you think about
when you're alone? I think I

want to get out of this rat

I want to get online I need a
computer. Next up, it was the

turn of a svelt and suited Keanu
Reeves in the somewhat

unsuccessful dawning of the
cyber hero in Johnny Mnemonic.

Much was made of Reeves wouldn't
performance at that time, he was

even like into a mannequin and
Kim Newman's S&S review. But to

be fair, he was playing a
literal hard drive. Pioneering

cyberpunk author William Gibson
adapted this major studio

release, which features a hero
who displayed brains over brawn

and teamed up with a
codebreaking dolphin to save the

day. Both Demolition Man and
Johnny Mnemonic seemed

fascinated with East Asian
culture, philosophy and attire.

It was early days but the
connected power of the internet

played a major role in how sci
fi cinema was being shaped.

global influences and innovative
leaps in technology impacted how

North American filmmakers
envision the future and the type

of heroes that would emerge.

Worldwide computer network
called the Internet has inspired

more movies than any big deal,
technological fads. And so the

TV radio boom of the 1970s

in 1995, dial up internet was
only used by a few professions,

but it would soon become a
broadband phenomenon used in

many households. The world was
expanding and it was all at the

laymen's fingertips to
experience and uncover. This was

also the year that would kowski
started touting the matrix

screenplay. The influence of
East Asian culture such as anime

and further technological
invention would also seep into

their film, but more on that
later. Welcome to Earth. In

1996, Will Smith became the
first black action hero in a

major blockbuster. Everyone is a
goddamn hero in Independence

Day, but Smith's ambitious pilot
Captain Steven Hiller fits the

typical action hero archetype,
fearlessly punching aliens in

the face and delivering
memorable one liners such as

what I call a close encounter.
It's interesting to see who he

teams up with in a film that
extols the virtue of coming

together to overcome a common
enemy. Inter Jeff Goldblum's

Jewish technology expert David
Levinson, who uploads a computer

virus to the mothership to help
save the day. You can see the

evolution of the computer expert
turning into something of a hero

through Levinson shift from
neurotic yet brave desk man to a

sexy cigar chomping pilot. At
the end of the film, he and

Hiller emerge victoriously from
their mission Top Gun style. As

the decade continued niche
interests, comic books and the

end of the world seem to dictate
the kind of heroes that would

appear in the Sci Fi studio
blockbuster. 9097 to 1999 new

attitudes for a new world.

On a more personal note,
Beatrice and you ran off with an

old girlfriend you gotta go stay
with your mom a couple of nights

you're gonna get over and decide
you're better off.

Well, yeah, you know could
because he never appreciated you

anyway. In fact, you know what?
You kicked him out. And now that

he's gone, you can go in town
you go to Bloomingdale's, buy

yourself some nice dresses, get
yourself some shoes, you know

find somewhere maybe you get a
facial and Oh, hire a decorator

to come in here quick because,


Will Smith continued his reign
as hero with another major

blockbuster in Men and Black
based on Lowell Cunningham's

comic book. His natural charisma
comedic ability and music career

made him a household name, and a
family friendly hero who ensured

bums on seats. First introduces
NYPD cop his worldview has

changed as he's granted a peek
behind the curtain at a secret

agency assigned to keep
intergalactic peace and monitor

aliens. To get the job done as
the agent James Will Smith must

first pass the test. Surrounded
by stocky rule abiding soldiers

in full army attire, James in
his casual clothes stands out

like a sore thumb. Ultimately,
it's his capability to think

outside of the box that lands
him the job. He's ushered in by

K, Tommy Lee Jones, an old pro
who is ready for retirement. You

can view their switches
acknowledgement that it's time

to pass the baton on in terms of
the hero. Smith certainly is a

physical departure from the army
type that dominated the box

office in the early 90s. Yet
there are similarities in what

the heroes in Total Recall and
Men and Black are presented with

in terms of how their perception
of reality changes. By the end

of Men in Black Smith's Agent J
has to make the decision to work

outside the system or give up
his newfound knowledge. His eyes

now open he decides he can't go

Says here the internet is the
future of business we have to be

on the internet. Why doesn't say

the world was changing. Mobile
phones were becoming a major

part of daily life. Google was
just about to launch and

communication and the way
information was shared would

change forever.

We right you're right, you're
right. But there are there are

some things that are nice things
worth saving some beautiful

things and things

Yes love. That's good. That's
good. That's a good example like

Love Love is worth saving. I
don't know

that was built to protect not to
love. You're wrong, you're

wrong, you're

wrong. I need you. I need you
very much. To understand who the

true hero of Luc Besson's the
Fifth Element is, you first have

to look at the villain. Gary
Oldman plays a merciless arms

trader intent on world
domination and destruction.

Technology has evolved but
whether it's used for good or

bad is in the hands of those
with money and power. Enter

Milla Jovovich's naive alien out
of water Leeloo, who is

disgusted at the violence she
witnesses in her quest to save

humanity. Bruce Willis may roll
around with guns and catch

Leeloo when she falls, but he is
something of an unwitting

sidekick. Leeloo means business
and the fate of the world is

ultimately in her hands. An ex
military man turned cabdriver

has taught a lesson about how
love not war can save the day.

Speaking to entertainment
magazine on the film's 20th

anniversary besom reflected on
his decisions to shake up the

Sci Fi action flick saying when
I started this film, I knew I

had a 50% chance that after this
I will not be in the movie

business. You cannot write a sci
fi that is funny, first of all,

made in France with Jean-Paul
Gaultier and the hero is a

woman. If Demolition Man was
playfully poking fun at the

Hollywood hero, then Paul
Verhoeven Starship Troopers tore

it apart from the inside and
played with its innards for a while.

Young people from all over the
globe are joining up to fight

for the future.

I'm doing my part. I'm doing my
part. I'm doing my part. I'm

doing my part to

they're doing their part are you
join the mobile infantry and

save the world service
guarantees citizenship.

Who are what we view as a hero
is satirised in this adaptation

of Robert A Heinlein in 1950 and
a novel that itself paints a

picture of a fascist utopia and
a population blind to his

machinations. It is left up to
the audience whether to cheer or

boo at the unfolding wars and
destruction much as it is in

reality. In Interview magazine,
Verhoeven explained his approach

saying, Starship Troopers is
more to do with foreign

politics. It's about propaganda
and the function of propaganda

versus reality, and how it spins
reality. As seen in T two and

alien three, the female sci fi
hero took a different course

over this decade. They embrace
their power and use their

physical prowess to kick the
crap out of the system. Even

Leeloo in the Fifth Element
takes out some guards by combat,

but she never hurts an innocent
bystander. In Alien

Resurrection, Ripley is revived
as a clone whose bodily autonomy

has been removed. Unbeknownst to
her, her body is being harvested

to make alien hybrids, and in
the process she has fused with

the monster to become something

The first explosion about 930
this morning blew out windows at

the North Atlanta family
planning clinic, where were you

in the building and where was
the explosion. This second

explosion about an hour later
injured a television

photographer and ATF agent and
at least for

the issue of women's
reproduction rights presented an

alien three is given new meaning
in the fourth film of the

franchise. In 1993, the shooting
of Dr. David Gunn became the

first known murder of an
abortion doctor in the US. And

as the decade continued further
attacks on abortion clinics

resulted in multiple murders.
Women's bodies were once again

piling up dead and their
autonomy up for debate. Ripley

spends this entire film smashing
up the patriarchy and literally

hitting aggressive men in the
balls. The Alien films have

always been anti corporation but
this time, Ripley, in a

screenplay written by Joss
Whedon bears all the same traits

as his other feminist heroines,
including Buffy as she

ruthlessly takes the power back.
y2k was fast approaching, and we

were told that due to an error
the Millennium Bug would bring

computer systems crashing down
and cause businesses and perhaps

the entire capitalist model
itself to topple. Sci Fi

entertainment began filming the
beginning of the end via to

disaster movies where comments
are said to collide with her

spike during the fight job to
take care of my little girl now.

That's your job. Again, the idea
of self sacrifice and martyrdom

makes an appearance. The male
heroes who represent old

fashioned American values blow
themselves up to save the day.

It microbe Is Armageddon. Bruce
Willis's oil rig boss turned

astronaut becomes a better
father and father figure as he

self sacrifices to save the
world and his daughter's fiance.

In Mimi letters Deep Impact an
experienced ageing astronaut

played by Robert Duvall makes
the call to end his own life in

order to save the world.
Although it's in the hands of a

young science was in a
journalist to sound the alarm.

Meteors aside in the final year
of the 1990s Will Smith and

Keanu Reeves were now cast as
the heroes representing a huge

departure from the start of the
decade. The role that would

prove iconic took major real
life innovations in technology

into account with pression ideas
and style despair. The other not

so much. Still, Smith was
offered the role of Neo and that

we call skis modern sci fi
classic the matrix and turned it

down. He instead opted to
partner up again with MIB

director Barry Sonnenfeld for a
steampunk adventure that

involved him battling against a
racist inventor who wishes to

rewrite the outcome of the civil
war with a giant mechanical

spider. In Wild Wild West meet

Thaddeus Morton, kidnapped from
MIT six months ago, expert in

the field of metallurgy,
discovered in the field of

alfalfa. That's a man's head.

It's no Django Unchained, but
Smith is a gun toting cowboy was

the prime candidate for
revisionist Western. It's

obvious to see why he chose the
role of a blockbuster action

adventure where a black man
battled a racist, but

unfortunately, it just didn't
work with critics. And it barely

scraped a profit from the box
office audiences.

The matrix is a system Neo, that
system is our enemy. When you're

inside, you look around what do
you see businessmen, teachers,

lawyers, carpenters.

The very the role of Neo was
also turned down by Brad Pitt,

Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra
Bullock, but eventually landed

with Reeves who engaged with the
philosophical ideas at the heart

of the film. Lily Ilana with
housekeys The Matrix was a true

event movie and became the fifth
highest grossing film of 1999.

It fully engaged with the power
of the internet and push the

limits of the action movie with
its Bullet Time special effects.

Almost everyone is preparing for
the worst potential y2k computer

crashes topped the list. In
Jersey City. 400 bankers will be

ready to take calls from

No one could predict how the
Internet file sharing sites like

Napster and early social media
like six and

arguably Neopets would change
the world. But the wick

housekeys knew the World Wide
Web offered a new reality where

the possibilities were endless.
They played with the mistrust of

the mainstream metaphysical
solipsism and offered a new type

of hero, a disillusioned company
man and underground computer

hacker. In line with the female
sci fi hero's journey over this

decade, Trinity, Carrie Anne
moss gets some kickass

sequences, but ultimately
becomes the love interest to

Neo. The webcal skis envisioned
a capitalist dystopia where

humans were literal cogs in the
machine doing nothing more than

powering the system. The general
population lived in a simulated

distorted world where the truth
was hidden. It was up to an

optimistic hacker to save the
day. Through information

uploaded directly into his
brain, Neo taught himself new

skills such as Kung Fu, gaining
the knowledge and abilities

necessary to challenge the
capitalist system through

technology. In a recent Netflix
interview, Willie wood kowski

who transitioned in 2016,
although her sister Lana dito,

around a decade earlier, spoke
about the trans allegory in the

film, explaining that the matrix
was all about the desire for

transformation. But it was all
coming from a closeted point of

view. The progressive
nonconformist ideas at the

centre of the matrix may not
always match up with the hero's

actions. But there is a clear
shift away from what the movie

going audience was presented
with at the start of the decade.

The unattainable physiques of
the muscleman that dominated the

genre were replaced by the
average Joe who could slip

through the system unnoticed.
Rather than hit the reset button

that would kowski worked within
the Hollywood blockbuster frame

to imagine an enlightened kind
of sci fi action hero who could

eventually break the mould. And
the genre ended the decade by

taking a dazzling step forward.

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Rebecca Davis
Rebecca Davis
Co-host of 3 🍟 Short Podcast. Producer at @thecompanionapp . Director. Currently in post-production on #Eisforfilm
Ben Herbert
Ben Herbert
Part of the team building @TheCompanionApp for fans of sci-fi (He/Him) I enjoy creative things, sports and whatever hygge is
George Mole
George Mole
He/Him | Community Manager @TheCompanionApp 🖖🏼💻🏳️‍🌈🚀#TransRightsAreHumanRights #LiveLongAndFuckTERFs #BlackLivesMatter #StopAsianHate
James Hoare
James Hoare
Tusken Master of Teräs Käsi. Writer of military history, witchcraft and weirdness. Editor @TheCompanionApp. He/Him. Big Doc Energy.
Project Lead, Product & Talent and Podcast Producer 📱🎙 @TheCompanionApp excited to be part of the team building the new home for sci-fi! He/Him
Last Action Heroes: How 1990s Blockbusters Swapped Thugs for Thinkers
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