In space no one can hear you scream, but can they smell your farts?
DVD Times put together a comprehensive feature on the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Box Set back in 2003, including excellent individual write ups on every film in the series. To hasten our coverage of the Alien Anthology Blu-ray Set I have decided to reproduce portions of those individual reviews and focus solely on the disc contents.
First up is Mike Sutton’s full film review of Alien. You can read his Quadrilogy review in its entirety here.
It seems incredible that there was once a time when Alien didn’t exist. It’s one of those films which has been so influential and made such a mark on popular culture that it’s difficult to accept that it’s only 24 years since it was made. Its origins were certainly very unpromising; an SF-Horror exploitation movie called “Star Beast” written by a guy who was known solely for his involvement in the quirky cult movie Dark Star. But, Hollywood has always benefited from a certain serendipity and it seems that the gods were smiling on the day that Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay found its way to David Giler and Walter Hill and, subsequently, to Ridley Scott. There has been much controversy about who is responsible for what – the documentaries on the second disc of this set go into this in deliciously bitchy detail – but what is undeniable is that whoever did what, Alien turned out like a dream; or, perhaps more appropriately, the most exquisite nightmare. It’s a collection of ideas and scenes remembered – and sometimes misremembered – from books and old movies, but these rusty old parts polish up beautifully when treated with tender loving care by a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talents.
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Potential Spoilers Throughout This Review
Whether Alien is primarily a horror movie or a science fiction film is something which I’ll be considering later in this review, but what it does have is an absolutely classic narrative set-up. Writers have been using this since the days of Herodotus; collect together an ill-assorted collection of characters, put them together in an enclosed space and then introduce something guaranteed to cause trouble. Sometimes, it’s a boat at sea; occasionally, it’s a train; more often, it’s an old, dark, and allegedly haunted house. In Alien it’s the Nostromo, a somewhat rickety spaceship which has the task of travelling around the galaxy and towing in whatever cargo is around. There are seven crew members; the Captain, Dallas (Skerritt); First Officer Ripley (Weaver), Lambert (Cartwright); Science Officer Ash (Holm); Kane (Hurt); and below-deck engineers Parker (Kotto) and Brett (Stanton). All of them are in hyper-sleep for the long voyage home but something has woken them up. A distress call, to be precise, which they must answer or risk losing their sought-after bonuses. But when they reach the source of the call, a remote planet, they discover something very nasty and manage, through excessive humanitarian concern rather than incompetence, to bring it back on board with them. As anyone reading this review will probably be aware, they bring back the Alien incubating in Kane’s body. It bloodily erupts out of his chest one day at dinner, grows to enormous size very quickly and subsequently begins to pick the surviving crew members off one by one.
Very little of this material could be described as original. Dan O’Bannon happily admits that he stole from everywhere and that no one source is the direct inspiration. What is original is the way that it’s handled. Like John Carpenter in Halloween, Ridley Scott uses his cinematic flair to bring life to a narrative which is somewhat hackneyed. The key thing he brings to the film is his gift for visual cinema. Every frame of the film is gorgeous to look at and some of them could be described as works of art in their own right. These images build up as struggling heaps assaulting the viewer’s consciousness and some of them have stayed with this writer since his first viewing of the film over twenty years ago. The eerily desolate landscape of the alien planet, the ‘space jockey’ suggesting a whole civilisation which has been lost for centuries, the thin layer of blue mist covering the alien eggs, the lethal elegance of the face-hugger… All of those appear in the first forty minutes of the film and they’re joined by other images which have become equally iconic.
Scott’s skill lies in making the repulsive seem somehow natural and more troublingly, beautiful – and that, of course, is the whole point of the alien, which is the film’s trump card. It’s very rare that a horror film features a fully worked out alien being; even rarer that the being is given genuine beauty. It’s the beauty of the natural predator admittedly, and there’s no way you’d want to snuggle up with one on a night out, but thanks to H.R.Giger’s brilliant designs the alien is the embodiment of all sorts of neuroses and fears. It’s a part of Giger and therefore, the film suggests, a part of us. This has led to a multitude of academics coming up with readings of the film; some of them Freudian and simplistic, others – such as Barbara Creed’s “Alien and the Monstrous Feminine” – quite convincing. But I’ll content myself with the most straightforward explanation – the alien is terrifying because it gets us where we live; it attaches itself to us, it incubates within us, it bursts out of us and it kills us. By invading us where we are most vulnerable – within the delicate structure of our all-too mortal bodies – the alien intrudes into our psychology and won’t go away. As Ash says, admiringly, “He’s a tough little son of a bitch.”
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But all of this psychological suggestion would be worthless if the film didn’t work on the most basic level; as a cracking good suspense thriller. The pacing is the key here. Scott stretches out the first part of the film with lingering shots of the hardware and languorous views of the beautifully designed alien world and then, suddenly, he gets us when we least expect it. The chest-burster scene has passed into cinematic myth and was some kind of first for mainstream cinema – although Hammer did attempt something similar in their underrated To The Devil A Daughter. It’s a marvellous moment, simultaneously scary and guiltily amusing. As with all the best horror set-pieces, it’s frightening because it’s unexpected and cunningly timed, but it’s also funny because we admit that the filmmakers really have got one over on us. Reducing us to the level of children succumbing to a nightmare, the film has us in its pocket from the moment the alien explodes from Kane’s chest. What’s interesting is that Scott doesn’t immediately race hell for leather through the rest of the story. His sly pacing continues slowly and then speeds up for the key moments of horror. Sometimes he goes for the obvious scares – Dallas climbing through the dark shafts and encountering the alien is a beautifully judged jump moment – and sometimes he pulls the rug out from under us – notably in the scene when Ash is unmasked as an android.
Dan O’Bannon, presumably disgruntled that he didn’t come up with the idea, has questioned the decision to make Ash a robot but I think it works on the most basic level for the audience – it’s a damned good shock moment and it adds an extra level to the second half of the film. At this point we really should give some credit to the editor Terry Rawlings, who manages to make us jump just about every time we’re supposed to and keeps the tension high even when nothing much is happening.
I’ve described the film above as a suspense thriller, which circumvents the tricky question about whether Alien is horror or science fiction. This is an interesting dilemma because it brings to the fore the rigid concepts of genre which can lead to films being pigeonholed by audiences and cineastes alike. In a sense, it’s science fiction, or it has at least the trappings of science fiction. In particular, it has a completely convincing environment. The Nostromo, designed by Ron Cobb and built by Michael Seymour and the production design team, is fascinating because it’s the antithesis of the sterile, spanking new spaceships of Kubrick’s 2001. It does slightly resemble the dark, depressing corridors of the ship in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the makeshift settings of Carpenter’s Dark Star. But what impresses is how well Scott maintains the illusion of a working, somewhat shabby spacecraft.
As in Peter Hyams’ visually similar Outland, you can easily believe that this is a real environment where people have worked for years. Similarly, Giger’s alien planet is one of the most convincing alien worlds ever committed to film because nothing is explained. It would be interesting to have a sequel which explains who the space jockey is and how the aliens got there in the first place, but in terms of Alien, the mystery is what makes it so effective. In the most literal term of the word, the planet is alien to us. Much the same goes for the alien itself. However, there is also an awful lot of bad science dotted about – space is given an awful lot of atmosphere, for example, and sound keeps travelling in a vacuum. Nit-picking perhaps but it does suggest that, apart from the visual and conceptual side of things, the film is not interested in being scientifically accurate. If considered as a horror film, the movie works perfectly as a kind of futuristic haunted house story with a physically real, and very nasty, ghost. The physical horror is also much more extreme than was usual in science fiction films at the time and certainly broke the barriers of what a major studio considered acceptable. One should also pay tribute to Jerry Goldsmith’s exquisitely sinister score which does much to keep the audience in suspense and is a fine example of how dissonance can add to the atmosphere as much as melody.
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Consequently, I think you would have to call Alien an SF-Horror movie. But more than that, and more revealingly, it’s a fantastic Monster Movie, one of the best ever made. Obviously harking back to the golden era of the genre, back in the 1950s, it takes elements from all over the place – The Thing From Another World, It-The Terror From Beyond Space, Forbidden Planet, Them – and brings them up to date with a new level of explicit horror. Monster Movies were a combination of ‘look behind you’ horror, body-horror and science fiction concepts, largely influenced by nuclear-age paranoia. Its monster is up there with the very best and certainly realised much better than most of what had been seen before. You only have to compare this with other genre films of the late seventies – Empire of the Ants, The Giant Spider Invasion – to see what a giant leap it was. That can partly be accounted for by the money which the studio gave to turn a B-Movie into a major blockbuster, but it’s also the result of brilliantly clever lighting and direction. Scott rarely shows the monster in full, knowing that it would look like a man in a suit, and relies on glimpses and emphasis on one or two details – notably that terrifying mouth, a combination of Freudian phallic obsession and the vagina dentata – to persuade us of the power of the creature. It’s much scarier when left in the shadows and shown fleetingly than it is when, as in the sequels, it’s shown in plenty of detail so we can admire the expensive special effects. By the time we see the whole creature at length, in the claustrophobic finale, it doesn’t matter because we’re already emotionally exhausted and our critical faculties have been laid to one side.
Another, slightly obscure, way in which the film was important is that it was one of the first mainstream films use the concept of ‘body-horror’ which had been established by David Cronenberg’s early work. Cronenberg always believed that the most frightening thing was the sense of being bodily invaded and/or changed and his films frequently show the human body as being the battleground for a war between us and ‘the other’. The central image of the alien impregnating a man with its seed and then allowing its young to grow within the chest before being ‘born’ is a marvellously unnerving concept, especially for men who can’t sit comfortably and relate it all to the female experience of childbirth. The ‘cocooning’ scene which is in the director’s cut makes this even more explicit as we see the human body being used as a key stage in the alien life-cycle. If the monster comes from within us and uses us to maintain the survival of the species, where can we possibly hide ? The vulnerability of the human body is constantly referred to and made explicit in the climax when Ripley strips down to her underwear. Ironically, this is the first ‘normal’ sexual image in a film which abounds with bizarre sexual imagery. Add to this the implication – in Lambert’s death scene – that the alien might have a special interest in females and you get a film in which our physical fragility is a key source of the horror.
As Alien is not a film which offers great opportunities for its actors, it’s fortunate that the cast is so able. Sigourney Weaver is particularly brilliant, creating a tough and resourceful heroine whose healthy disregard for the opposite sex is confirmed by her ability to stay alive without any patriarchal help. Weaver’s creation, built upon and explored in the sequels – especially in Alien 3 – is one of the great acting achievements of recent years and it’s fascinating to see how strongly she began, even though this was her first major film role. If she makes the strongest impression, that’s because she has the best part but I don’t want to disregard the rest of the small cast. Tom Skerritt is ideal as Dallas, all public reassurance and private fears, and Veronica Cartwright gets a surprising amount out of a role which is really a little demeaning. The opposite of Ripley, all Lambert gets to do – after a strong start – is whimper and snivel and when she cops it, it’s hard to feel too many regrets. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton provide plenty of comic relief in the early part of the film, making the most of some witty dialogue, and John Hurt makes a strong showing in a somewhat thankless but vital role. My own favourite out of the male cast is Ian Holm, whose quality of watchfulness is brilliantly used. The revelation of his robotic nature is a great shock first time you see the film but a second viewing shows that Ash has always been aloof and patiently waiting.
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This is a great movie by any standards and still one of Scott’s best films. I refer to the original theatrical cut which I’ve seen and adored more times than I care to recall. After years of claiming that this is his definitive version, there now appears the Alien: Director’s Cut. Both versions are included on the Quadrilogy DVD release. The changes are generally quite minor. Some parts have been removed from the first half of the film to speed it up but this only amounts to seconds from individual scenes and nothing significant is absent. However, I think this in itself is a mistake because it’s the slow pacing of the opening which adds so much to the tension. The major casualty is the scene where Dallas asks Mother about the crew’s chances, which adds an emotional level to his death.
The added scenes are as follows:
– a confrontation between Lambert and Ripley outside the infirmary
– a brief shot of the alien hanging above Brett as he looks for the cat
– Parker gets Brett’s blood splattered on him as Brett is carried off
– the famous ‘cocooning’ sequence
Of these, the first is quite effective at establishing the tension between the crew and the third enhances Parker’s shock at Brett’s death. The second is jarring for those of us who have seen the film many times and don’t expect to get a glimpse of the alien until it rears up towards Brett. The fourth is a good scene in itself and seems to complete the life cycle of the alien. This does seemingly clash with the idea of the egg laying Queen in Aliens but as part of the first film it is very interesting. It does, however, have a certain impact on the pacing of the last section which some may not like.
All in all, whether you prefer the new version or the theatrical cut, or even like James Cameron’s rollercoaster horror movie Aliens better, there’s surely little argument about one thing – that Alien is a stunning achievement and one of the finest Monster Movies ever made.
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Apart from the veritable smörgåsbord of extra features that Fox have laden the Alien Anthology with (more about this later), the big news regarding this set is that Fox commissioned the generally respected people at Lowry Digital to create brand new 4K transfers from scratch, which certainly on the basis of this pivotal first entry in the series was a very wise decision indeed.
The first thing that really struck me about this 1080p AVC release is just how gorgeous the new colour timing is, accurate or not I cannot say for I have never been fortunate enough to see Alien outside of VHS and DVD before, but as far as my sense of aesthetics goes those early shots of The Nostromo’s empty corridors with the different shades of red, blue, gold and grey just immediately jumped out at me and pretty much every shot of the film from then on colour-wise did not disappoint. The saturation of t-shirts and uniforms look really lush and skin tones feel completely naturalistic, from the healthy complexions of Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt and Weaver to John Hurt’s pale English skin and Yaphet Kotto’s dark African tone there’s nothing to suggest any manipulation is in play. Same goes for the contrast and brightness, with the shadows and highlights feeling very organic – Alien may be a little darker here than what we’re used to but shadow detail is still solid in the lower-lit set pieces and black levels are excellent.
Grain is kept to an absolute minimum with only a very fine layer is peeping out at you which does get a little thicker in certain shots here and some opticals there, but never egregiously so. There has been mention of certain instances of “static” grain in the film which has fuelled the fire as to whether there’s any significant noise reduction + grain replacement in play throughout, but I have to say that detail levels looked very good watching on a 109inch projector screen and I certainly never questioned the clarity for one moment. I felt the image had a wonderfully seventies analogue feel to detail where there’s just a touch of softness and you’re not being bludgeoned by fine definition all the time. Naturally though, this is a film with a healthy dose of optical work so you will see a dip in detail at times – not to mention some variance in focus, but you will always get that sense of definition to the transfer, whether in close-ups or long shots.
Compression is AVC with branching used to offer the two versions of the film on one disc at a bitrate that averages around 26Mbps for both. That may not be massively high but the encoding is pretty much spot on – it’s not perfect, there’s a little noise in places (mostly darker regions) and a very faint trace of banding at times, but I very much doubt you’re going to find it particularly noticeable in motion.
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I don’t really want to end on a negative note for what is a very fine transfer but aside from the debate on DNR and new colour timing, there have been a couple of niggles highlighted that may be a potential source of contention for some viewers out there, one is that there appears to be some cropping on the sides in some shots and the other is possible geometry issues as this transfer does look a little “fatter” (vertically squished) in comparison to an existing High-Def D-Theater transfer. I’ll leave it up to the boffins to figure out which release has got the geometry right and just state that at no point watching Alien did I feel I was watching a compromised image, but there are just enough potential issues for me to be a bit conservative and score this a 8/10 for transfer, but think of it as a very high 8!
Alien was originally shown theatrically (in theatres with the technology) in 70mm 6 Track Dolby Stereo, which comprised of a left, center, and right channel at the front, one surround channel at the rear, and two LFE channels. Again I’m going to have to highlight my ignorance as to how that sounded back in 1979 but I’d like to think that the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio on this disc offers a reasonably good representation of the original 6-track stereo. It’s remarkably clean and pristine-sounding with very little in the way of hiss or distortions and a bass track that offers considerable weight to the sound, which you can feel right from the off as the deep echoes and creepy string arrangements of Goldsmith’s score really resonate over the title sequence. Subtlety is the key with this track, the audio finesses your ears with fantastic dynamics drawing out every element of the sound and an active, pin-point front sound field. The rear channels are mostly there for ambience and don’t express any bombastic stereo effects. Every now and then the film’s age creeps out in either some hollow dialogue in a couple of scenes or some faint hiss at other points but these are most definitely the exceptions to the rule.
Accompanying the DTS-HD track is a lossy English 4.1 Dolby Surround track that offers a very strong presentation in its own right. The HD track is noticeably louder but accounting for this I still felt the lossy 4.1 track sounded a little less dynamic and not quite so smooth and finalised. The difference isn’t night and day, but it’s enough to make you appreciate the DTS-HD presentation. Rounding up the English audio options is a English 2.0 Dolby Surround track which again is very solid and simply a second step down from the great lossless track rather than a mere afterthought. Also present on the disc are four foreign language dubs: Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.
This is a European release so you’ve got a healthy choice of optional subtitles for the main feature: English (For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, and finally Swedish.
Menus and MU-TH-UR Mode
As a general rule I view the lavish interactive menus that the big studios insist on using for their big title releases a chore rather than a bonus, partly because my BD player is no spring chicken and takes five years to load up most menu screens, but also because half the time the more features a menu system has the more irritating the implementation (I’ve grown weary of U-Control and Maximum Movie Mode). For the Alien Anthology 20th Century Fox have configured a menu system that finally gets it right, offering all the functionality and attractive design that the BD format allows for.
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The menu designs themselves are similar to the Quadrilogy DVD in offering an animated futuristic Weyland-Yutani interface that displays images, stats, and info on the various things that appear in the film: like the planet Acheron, the Facehuggers, and the Alien. At the bottom is a simple row of choices for each section of the BD. One final great touch is that each disc loads a Weyland-Yutani logo screen into your player’s memory which is displayed when you eject them, and if you put another disc from the set in your player then this screen will segue straight into the new disc’s main menu, thus skipping the usual copyright screens.
Fox has been hyping the new interactive menu system developed for this release, called the “MU-TH-UR Mode” (In case you’re wondering MU-TH-UR is apparently the correct way to write the name of The Nostromo’s central computer, which the characters refer to as “mother” in the film, so I assume that’s how it should be pronounced), and you can see why as the whole system is very thoughtfully designed. There’s an individual booklet and video tutorial on each disc explaining what the MU-TH-UR Mode is and how to use it, but it’s fairly straightforward: Activating it brings up an interface comprising of four boxes: three down the left hand side categorised as AUDITORY, VISUAL, DATASTREAM, and one small box in the top right corner called DATA TAGS. Here’s a rundown:
This box allows you to flit between the audio commentaries and isolated scores present on the disc. The cool thing about the interface for this is that it displays real-time written info on what’s currently occurring in each track. So you’ll know if there’s no score playing at that specific time in the film or what topic Ridley is discussing on the commentary tracks.
This can be a little confusing at first if you’ve not read the booklet or skipped the tutorial as contrary to its name it doesn’t feature any actual pop-up video footage from the film disc. Its function is basically to prompt you to select bookmarks of video footage or image scans relevant to the specific scene playing at the time. So for instance while the opening titles play you will see an option like this in the VISUAL box:
VID: Dan O’Bannon on the origins of the Title “Alien“
If you choose this option then it will be added to the DATA TAGS box on the right as a bookmark that will take you immediately to the relevant video clip when you insert the relevant Bonus Disc. This is obviously a feature aimed at casual viewers who don’t intend to sit through all the content on the Bonus Discs and just want specific information on specific scenes from the film. VISUAL allows them to compile a bookmarks checklist that will cut right to the chase.
Or the Weyland-Yutani Datastream to be precise. This box offers concise notes on the history and production of Alien, including brief biographies for key players, anecdotes, and all manner of informative snippets.
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Most of the extra materials in this set are consigned to the two individual bonus discs, but there’s a small but worthy selection of extras on the film discs themselves. Note that some of the extra features are only available on one cut of the film, with the only “universal” extra features being the following:
2003 Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott and the Cast and Crew
Quadrilogy owners will be familiar with this track as it was recorded for that release. It’s an amalgam of a number of individual commentary tracks from the likes of Director Scott, Executive Producer Ron Shusett, Writer Dan O’Bannon, and almost the entire cast of the film, all edited together into one constantly informing stream. An excellent guide to the entire production of the film, if you’ve never owned the Quadrilogy set or never properly explored it then this track is a definite highlight.
This option will take you to Fox Home Entertainment’s online features thingy where you can either download or stream am Anthology BD trailer or a clip of Sigourney Weaver’s Screen Test.
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The rest of the extra features are version-specific and I’ll state in brackets which version of the film has to be activated in order to watch each:
1999 Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott (Theatrical Cut Only)
Like the Isolated Scores (mentioned below) this is taken from Fox’s pre-Quadrilogy Alien Legacy DVD Boxset. It’s a typically dry but massively informative Ridley Scott commentary where he talks at length about how pretty much everything you see happening on screen was pulled off, not to mention sharing his (high) opinions on the actors and their performances. With news that Ridley Scott is apparently working on a prequel to Alien there’s a very interesting part in this commentary where Scott talks about his idea behind the crashed alien ship as some sort of cargo or attack vessel carrying the Xenomorphs as biological weapons used by the “Space Jockey” aliens in some interstellar war.
Final Theatrical Isolated Score – 5.1 Dolby Digital (Theatrical Cut Only)
This isolated track presents Jerry Goldsmith’s score as it appears in the final film after extensive post-production tinkering and although it sadly isn’t in lossless format the sound quality matches the English 4.1 Dolby Surround track.
Composer’s Original Isolated Score – 5.1 Dolby Digital (Theatrical Cut Only)
Another isolated track which this time presents Goldsmith’s score as it was originally composed and recorded, music buffs and/or fans of this iconic work are going to have fun comparing the two tracks to get a feel for the evolution of the Alien score. Goldsmith’s track sounds a little more subtle to my ears and the sound quality is very good.
EDIT: One of our readers in the comments section below has pointed out that you can actually pull up a sub-menu listing the entire playlist for each Isolated Score, including bonus tracks that play with a themed background graphic on-screen. I completely missed this feature because there’s no instructions in the manual on how to activate it, nor do the disc menus make much of a sign about it. Basically when you choose each Isolated Score in the menu a pop-up gives you the option of turning said score ON or OFF. Choose neither and instead scroll left or right until a third option appears: COMPLETE MUSIC INDEX, which will bring up the playlist. From this sub-menu you can then choose to play each cue individually, all-at-once, or randomly shuffled.
Deleted Scenes Index (Theatrical Cut Only)
In Theatrical Cut mode only you can pull up a list that will allow you to watch either individually or all-together the Deleted Scenes that were re-inserted back into the film for the so-called 2003 Director’s Cut.
Deleted Footage Marker (2003 Director’s Cut Only)
If you activate this feature you’ll get an on screen-prompt that will let you know when you are watching one of the deleted scenes that were inserted back into this cut.
20th Century Fox set the standard for multi-disc boxsets of classic film franchises back in 2003 with their Alien Quadrilogy Boxset, so it is only fitting that in 2010 they have raised the bar higher for their High-Definition Alien Anthology BD Set. Most of the Extra Features may not be on the actual Alien film disc, but even without them Disc 01 in this set offers a nice selection of Audio Commentaries, Isolated Score tracks, Animated Menus and the new MU-TH-UR Mode interactive feature. Most importantly the presentation of the actual film is excellent.
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It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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