The time has come for us to step into the future simultaneously with the past as we look at the intriguing Tech Noir sub-genre – science fiction content with Film Noir stylings, which hits upon some of our favourite movies and directors. We’ll give you the low-down on Alphaville, The Groundstar Conspiracy, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The City of Lost Children, Dark City, and The Thirteenth Floor, whether you want us to or not. Come, explore the retro-future with us!
Apologies for those having flashbacks to last month’s traumatic New Wave episodes, but I’m afraid there’s one more Jean-Luc Godard film for us to talk about while sniping about how Breathless is a garbage film for garbage people.
Alphaville is, in a sense, the most literal example of Tech Noir that there is – it’s not taking elements of Film Noir and applying it to Sci-Fi, it simply is a Film Noir, that happens to have a Sci-Fi story. It centres around hardboiled agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a character (and actor) no stranger to the genre, having his own series of films, played very much of the Sam Spade / Philip Marlowe via Humphry Bogart school of detecting. However, none of those took place in the allegedly futuristic dystopia of Future Paris, or Alphaville as it’s now called.
It’s a weird old place and no mistake, being ruled by a rampant AI, Alpha 60, who has somehow outlawed concepts like free thought, poetry, love and such, which I suppose proves that computers can read, or at least that this one read 1984. Thanks again, George Orville. You stupid green duck. Lemmy’s tasks are to track down another previously sent agent who’s gone dark, then convince Alpha 60’s creator Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) of the error of his ways and have him return to “the Outlands” – that being seemingly anywhere that’s not Alphaville – or failing that, to cessate von Braun and his obnoxious robo-ruler.
While it’s much more coherent in a general sense than the other Godard films we spoke of recently, it’s still falling down on the specifics, and I’m again happy to lay this at the door of the misguided obsession with improvising. It’s particularly baffling when there does appear to be an overarching narrative in mind at the outset, certainly more so than the meandering, pointless, Breathless. Not that we’re bitter.
As such, the capsule recap makes this film sound a lot more coherent than it plays out in actuality, adding a puzzling layer of opaqueness to character’s actions and motivations that only detracts from my enjoyment of the piece.
And there are elements to enjoy – in particular Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard have very much nailed the Noir aesthetic, to the point where I can even forgive them for having a little fun with it – when Lemmy is in conversation with someone in a dark hallway lit only by a bare hanging lightbulb, he seemingly can’t resist setting it swinging purely for the effect on the shadows.
Unfortunately, the problem the film can’t get over is that the future, now we’re here, doesn’t look much like they figured it would back in 1965, and it very much suffers from the original Star Trek series syndrome. The Modernist and Brutalist architectures used as locations may have seemed strange and futuristic then, but now they only bring to mind dilapidated office buildings. Most critically of course, even the best depiction of 1965’s idea of futuristic computer systems wouldn’t come close to how technology evolved. It seems a trifle unfair to pick on Alphaville from this angle, but the stark contrast between it’s vision of dials and switches and the like and, well, the phone in your pocket, really serves to pull you out of the experience.
It’s also got a bit of an issue with its worldbuilding, with no particular attention given to how a society could wind up apparently ceding all free will and control to a computer system, which pretty much by definition didn’t exist one day then did the next, at which point everyone signed up for a lifetime of oppression. At least Orwell’s state control could be imagined to have started from the basis of there being a state and creeping onwards.
Alphaville represents a fascinating early outing for this little sub-genre, and it’s not altogether unenjoyable even today. However it’s an artefact of its time, and on a number of levels doesn’t stand up to modernity’s facts on the ground which really does hamper enjoyment of it. If you’re interested in the other films we’re covering, it’s worth going back and looking at this, but it doesn’t need to be a priority.
The Groundstar Conspiracy kicks things off with a bang, with David Welles (Michael Sarrazin) appearing to steal highly classified rocket plans from the top secret Groundstar facility, but taking one explosion too many in his attempt to flee. He stumbles, disfigured, into the nearby house of Nicole Devon (Christine Belford) and collapses, much to her surprise.
Before too long a special investigator named Tuxan (George Peppard) arrives to take charge of the situation, with such a remarkable breadth of authority that I can only assume he’s actually the dictator of America or something. He’s focussed on finding out who Welles is working with, treating Nicole with suspicion but doing much worse to Welles once he’s recovered in hospital.
However, it turns out torture is ineffectual on someone who has no memory at all, not just about what he’s done but who he is, and in a way this aspect is the strongest claim to the Noir classification, as the amnesia-addled, mystified protagonist is a recurring element of the genre, along perhaps with Tuxan’s no-nonsense, no-prisoners nature.
As Tuxan’s not getting anywhere, he concocts a wheeze to let Welles escape, tailing and intrusively surveilling him in the hopes that his conspirators will track him down, while Welles himself is more concerned with trying to track down his own identity, turning to Nicole for help for reasons that I don’t think were ever particularly well explained.
And so it goes, although I’d argue it’s running closer in inspiration to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or Spellbound than any Noir work by this point, but that’s not necessarily a bad goal to aim at, even if this falls a good way short of that ideal. Much of the “Tech” of the description falls under the remit of the final twist, which there’s no need to reveal here but I will say that although effective at the time, it’s one of those ones that’s unpredictable in the main because there’s no hint whatsoever in the rest of the film that such a thing would be at all possible, which feels a bit cheap on reflection.
Not that The Groundstar Conspiracy warrants all that much reflection. It’s an amiable enough watch, and there’s an interesting tension created in the character of the two leads – Welles being a far more sympathetic character, but despite his amnesia a traitor and a murderer, while Tuxan’s nominally the good guy, but behaves like 24‘s Jack Bauer at his absolute worst. Both the male leads play their roles effectively, but I do wonder if you’re going to under-write the female lead to this extent, why bother writing it at all?
While overall The Groundstar Conspiracy hangs together better as an experience than Alphaville, with a more satisfying narrative, it’s still a fairly disposable slice of entertainment and nothing like as interesting a film as Godard’s earlier work. Therefore it earns itself the same overview – worth watching, but not as a priority.
When you think Tech Noir, this is of course the film that springs instantly to mind. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is charged in his capacity as a Blade Runner to track down and “retire” a group of rogue replicants, robots from the off-world colonies who have made their way back to Earth leaving a trail of death in their wake. Lead by Rutger Hauer’s appropriately named Roy Batty, they’re seeking a way to extend their six year life span by meeting their makers at the Tyrell Corporation, and isn’t it nice to see them doing so well after all their troubles in Westeros.
With many of Philip K Dick’s key questions about the nature of memory, identity and what makes a human human interwoven throughout the narrative, it provides plenty of food for though amongst the incredible cityscapes, model work and effects shots that makes it one of the most convincing, lived-in versions of the future we’ve yet seen. Although we do only have three years to build those off-world colonies.
We’ve covered this already in our initial Top Films episodes, so we won’t belabour the point that it’s essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the ascetics of cinema and of course, this topic in particular, to the point that I’m sure you’ve already done so.
James Cameron’s 1984 classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger play the imposing cyborg from a robot-dominated future, sent back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the resistance forces before she’s even born. Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese is also sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), an ordinary waitress who will be given a crash course in survival as this metal monstrosity comes after her. There is, I am going to assume, little point recapping the plot further as if you’ve got this far into the topic you’ve surely seen one of the touchstone pieces of sci-fi and indeed modern cinema, and if you haven’t, you should do so immediately.
There’s a laundry list of things to praise – the performances are all pitched perfectly, and of course Schwarzenegger’s never been more intimidating, particularly as he’s normally the hero of the film rather than the villain, but Hamilton’s is also critical to the film, going from the everywoman to a believable trainer of future-humanities’ saviour. The effects work still looks pretty decent today, with only a few scenes suffering the transition to this 4K future – unfortunately that’s the climatic showdown, which looks a little bit shonky these days, but that’s no real failing of the film.
While the sequel was much flashier, for my money this is the better film. The grimy Los Angeles underbelly, shot of course with Noir influences, produces a great atmosphere and makes for a very enjoyable chase flick.
The second film to feature in our earlier Top Films podcast, this animated classic also demands your attention if you’re a sci-fi fan. Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, adapted from Masamune Shirow’s manga, is a gorgeously realised tale of the chase of a computer hacker that’s causing political bother that turns into a exploration of the implications of artificial intelligence, cybernetics and transhumanism. While it has a number of deftly handled action scenes, it’s the more philosophical bent that makes this something special and belays the stigma anime can suffer from of being too lightweight. While it wears its influences on its sleeves, there’s no denying that it’s also gone on to influence many science fiction films that followed it both stylistically and narratively.
There’s conflicting information as to whether this a true sequel to Ghost in the Shell, with it being a little difficult to gauge Mamoru Oshii’s intentions. That said, it has the same characters and it chronologically follows the first movie, so that’s close enough for me.
Your central protagonists this time around are Batô and Togusa, who are assigned the case of a robot sex doll, a gynoid, that has somehow gone haywire and slaughtered it’s owner. Bad enough when it happens once, but it’s becoming a serial occurrence. Suspecting shadier motives, Section 9 is called in, who discover something more sinister.
The dolls have been illegally imprinted with a human “ghost” – as close as you can get to defining a soul – in a bid to make them more lifelike. This means that Batô and Togusa will have to investigate the monolithic and powerful corporation that made sexbots, and given that in the GitS universe the corporations are as powerful as countries, that’s tantamount to an act of war.
It largely follows the same playbook as the original, although this seems a little heavier on the gratuitous philosophy and literature drops outta nowhere. Also, I suppose, the second time isn’t as memorable as the first, and while it still looks stunning the cityscapes aren’t quite so impactful this time around. Thankfully, Kenji Kawai’s score still is.
I’d need, I think, a few more viewings to properly compare this to the original, this being the first time I’ve seen it. If you want a hot take, however, it’s a cut below the original, but more than good enough to carry the name without disgrace, and bear in mind this is comparing it to one of the best animes ever made, and a personal favourite film, so that’s no disgrace at all.
I’m going to have to reserve judgement on most of GitS: TNM for two reasons. Primarily, I’m not convinced the subtitles on copy I got my hands on are particularly great or complete, and sadly Watashi wa Nihongo ga amari jouzu ja nai desu. So while I got the gist of what’s going, I’m not claiming to know the intricacies.
Secondarily, I’d picked up that this was something along the lines of a redux of the 1995 original, but it’s actually a follow on from the recent-ish OVA series chronicling the lives of the Section 9 team before they joined Section 9, of which I’ve seen nary a sausage, so to an extent I’m walking in late on a final act.
But it’s designed to stand alone (complex), and it seems that it would do so, language barrier aside. It has the same mix of great action scenes, although this time it’s rather more concerned with the possible obsolescence of humans who have been cybernetically enhanced, and what happens when these need expensive servicing and modifications when you’re no longer, say, part of the military that funded these things.
Where it falls short is atmosphere . It looks terrific, but doesn’t have the grittiness that made the original stand out so much. The soundtrack comes from a favourite artist of mine, Cornelius, and again while it’s good, it’s nothing like as iconic, unusual and effective as Kenji Kawai’s score in the original film.
So, while The New Movie is by no means a bad outing, it’s perhaps best thought of as a cap to the OVA series, rather than as a prequel to the original film.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) seems to be happy enough as a low-level civil servant, much to the disappointment of his domineering mother, but he can’t shake a recurring dream of a happier, more free, more adventurous life with a beautiful woman. So he’s surprised to see said woman of his dreams Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who’s trying to complain about a bureaucratic mix-up that saw her neighbour taken away by the police for questioning about the rash of terrorist bombings plaguing the city.
Sam accepts a promotion into the secret police service with the motive of finding Jill, but through yet more mix-ups winds up a suspect terrorist himself, having to go on the run with the intention of saving Jill from the governments sinister clutches.
The capsule recap actually makes Terry Gilliam’s film sound much more grounded and far less fanciful than the wondrous mess of surreal fantasy, uniquely British futurism and grinding bureaucracy that he’s delivered. It also gives rather more credit to Lowry than he warrants, as he’s very much swept up in events he doesn’t understand and is mostly a victim of events, rather than instigator of them, which along with some visual stylings is perhaps the claim to belonging to Tech Noir.
It’s been a while since I last watched Brazil, and I’d forgotten just how much I love this film. In particular, the first half hour to forty five minutes are about as good a piece of film-making as I’ve ever seen. The characterisation, the transitions, the atmosphere, the worldbuilding – faultless and endlessly enjoyable stuff.
How well it travels outside of Britain, I’m not sure – box office returns would suggest poorly, but for us poor island souls it’s a treat. Particular mention has to be made of the technology on display, which has that very British, at least in the 80’s, mix of seeming impossibly forward thinking and futuristic but also a bit crappy and entirely unpolished. It’s like The Matrix as filtered through Sinclair Research or Amstrad, and it’s very funny to behold.
It’s an engaging central turn from Jonathan Pryce, and he has one of the best supporting casts Britain can muster – Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Bob Hoskins all do very good comic turns, and of course there’s that great appearance by (the not-British, obviously) Robert De Niro and the outlaw guerrilla air conditioning repair man Harry Tuttle, the chase for whom precipitated all this nonsense in the first place despite his periphery importance to the central story.
I could perhaps accept an argument that the last hour starts to drift a little more than is quite wise to do, but the ramping up of events towards the end as Lowry ends up as crazy as the system he’s living in provides an effective punch at the end. All in all, it’s a hugely enjoyable film, perhaps Gilliam’s most enjoyable non-Python work, and highly recommended.
The other Gilliam film that would come to mind as Tech Noir would be 12 Monkeys, based quite heavily on a subject of our previous French New Wave Left Bank podcast, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. In a post-apocalyptic world, scientist figure out a way to send people back in time and do so to James Cole (Bruce Willis), with instructions to investigate the Army of the 12 Monkeys, suspected of spreading a virus which drove humanity underground and to the edge of extinction.
Sadly 1990’s America wasn’t ready for the truth of this situation and Cole is sent to a mental health facility, where he meets wild fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (a wildly overacting Brad Pitt) and psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Trying to convince the suits doesn’t work particularly well, so Cole tries escaping, but he’ll find his task intertwined with these two even after he’s pulled six years into the future, on the eve of the deadly outbreak.
While there’s a lot of Gilliam’s unique stylistics present, particularly during the scenes set in the future, perhaps unusually for Gilliam there’s much more of a focus on the narrative. It’s a compelling chase to track down and follow the scant clues Cole has, with the added complication of everyone trying to convince him that he’s actually crazy.
It all works really well, and there’s a forbidding atmosphere created largely from what for my money is Bruce Willis’ best performance. The story is compelling and laid out well – it never becomes confusing or hard to follow. All in all it’s a fantastic film – probably Gilliam’s best, in pseudo-objective terms, although I find Brazil the more enjoyable watch, but both are highly recommended.
This Marc Caro / Jean-Pierre Jeunet film will, I’m sure, look immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen Amélie, another favourite around these parts, as the pair and latterly Jeunet himself has such a distinctive style of film-making, although you’d quite clearly never be able to mistake one for the other.
Creepy, evil old doctor Krank (Daniel Emilfork) lives on an offshore platform with a selection of people just as odd as he is – his brother, Uncle Irvin (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant) a brain in a jar, his wife Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), and a number of identical, cloned sons, all played by Dominique Pinon. With such an oddball group it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that they’re all products of experiments in genetic manipulation, created imperfectly by a now absent genius.
Chief amongst Krank’s defects is an inability to dream, which he blames for his ageing and so has hatched the only logical plan to combat this – kidnapping children from the nearest city and hooking them up to a machine of his design to steal their dreams. Unfortunately, given the whole kidnapping / terrorising thing, all he’s getting is their nightmares. Of course he’s much too busy to do the kidnapping himself, outsourcing that to the local cult of technology obsessed freaks, in exchange for the biomechanical eyes and ears they’re so fond of.
The latest batch of kidnapees includes Denree (Joseph Lucien), which unfortunately for them means they have incurred the wrath of Ron Pearlman. Ron. Ron never changes. Here Ron and his minimal grasp of French play Denree’s adopted older brother and circus strongman, who sets out to track him down, before long teaming up with the street smart young thief Miette (Judith Vittet) as they follow the trail from the cult to the doctor and his offshore base.
From the outset, this film looks quite astonishing. Beautiful isn’t quite the right term, given the grimness of the city and the other-worldliness of the cult and Krank’s hangouts, but it’s distinctive and captivating, an incredible production design that extends through to the look of the characters.
Pearlman doesn’t speak French and while it shows in his delivery, wisely most of the talking is left to the native speakers, including an effective, charming turn from Judith Vittet as the young thief playing someone matured beyond her years. Pearlman’s mainly there to cut a distinctive figure, which he most certainly does.
Despite the subject matter, it’s generally light in tone, to an extent coming across more as a fairy tale in all but the visual aspects, which are certainly Noir-influenced, with a bit of steampunk thrown in the mix. There’s also a few other elements, such as amnesia and the baffled protagonist being entirely out of his element that form parts of the plot, but nothing absolutely critical to it.
It’s a hugely atmospheric, charming and distinctive film, and while it’s not exactly obscure it’s certainly one that doesn’t get anything like the acclaim and respect that it deserves. If, for example, you’re a fan of Terry Gilliam’s work, or place any stock in Auteur Theory at all then there’s just no excuse not to see this film.
You can’t talk Tech Noir without talking about Dark City, as it perhaps exemplifies the aesthetic better than any other film.
John Murdoch awakes in a dingy hotel room with no memory of where he his, who he is, or why there’s a dead woman on the floor. As he goes on the lam, it’s up to Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) to track him down as part of an investigation into a series of suspiciously similar murders.
John’s pieced together that he’s separated from his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and tries to track her down to get some answers about his life and if he could really be guilty of these murders, but before getting too far down that route he notices that he seems to have some unusual abilities.
At this point I’d advise if you haven’t seen the film you stop reading about it now and go off and watch it, as while it’s great no matter how you come to it, I think the ideal state is knowing as little as possible. However, seeing as even the Blu-Ray’s dust jacket does not share this opinion, we’ll head into what I consider spoiler territory, even if admittedly this we’re talking about events maybe fifteen minutes in to the film.
John appears to be developing a form of telekinesis, and he’s approached by the creepy Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (an unusually decrepit looking Kiefer Sutherland), who soon enough reveals the reasons for this city’s oddities – the way it’s always night-time, the way everyone remembers local resort Shell Beach, but has no idea how to get there, and indeed the general patchiness of everyone’s long term memories.
Turns out the city is a creation of an alien race, a hive society that’s dying out and are convinced that the key to their survival lies in learning to be an individual, just like us humans. So they built a city scale lab that can be reconfigured, or “tuned”, to their whims, and use Doc Schreber’s expertise to inject false memories and personalities into their test subjects. Murdoch’s latest injection went wrong, leaving him without his prescribed memories and has somehow awoken the ability to bend the city to his will the way the aliens do.
Not best pleased with this state of affairs, the aliens are out to reign Murdoch in, as instructed by their creepy leader Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) to the even creepier enforcer Mr. Hand (Richard O’Brien), who after realising that Murdoch’s abilities make him harder to catch than expected decides to take the memories that were due to go into Murdoch to better know and predict his actions, with the unfortunate side effect of turning him into the monster Murdoch was meant to be.
Not that he and the rest of the aliens were doing a bad job monster-wise in the first instance, using human dead as vessels and generally looking like a hit squad composed of Nosferatu cosplayers, and it’s a singularly unnerving turn from Richard O’Brien. Nary a harmonica or Mumsy in sight from the ex-Crystal Maze host, just an intensely creeptacular look and sound that’s one of the most effective boogeymen in sci-fi.
The rest of the cast are equally good, with perhaps Sewell and Connelly’s best roles and performances, and William Hurt is dependably stoic. Perhaps the real star of the show is the city itself, with Alex Proyas showing off real flair in showing off some wonderfully intricate sets, and the darkness and shadow looking great and fitting the narrative very well.
And it’s a really great narrative, at that, an imaginative and unpredictable blend of sci-fi and gothic horror. Some have criticised it as being style over substance, which seems objectively wrong to me. There’s some deep issues of identity and character explored here, I though fairly obviously even although it’s treating you with enough intelligence not to hit you around the head with that.
Certainly it’s got style by the bucketload, and perhaps on a first viewing it’s tough to read past the incredible visuals. I can’t think of any other rationale for the criticism, as it’s a film that’s always rewarded my repeat viewings. In my opinion one of the best bits of sci-fi on film, so naturally highly recommended.
Not to be confused with Thirteen Ghosts.
Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko) is greeted with a shock one day as he finds that this business partner in the field of advanced computer simulations, Hannon Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) has been murdered. Fuller had just completed work on a VR-type immersive simulation recreating 1930’s Los Angeles, where the various citizens are going about their own lives which you can rudely take over with their new system, leaving them quite puzzled and confused once you’ve logged out. With Fuller’s will leaving the entire multi-million dollar enterprise to Hall, Detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert) declares Hall the prime suspect, particularly given that he seems to be having trouble accounting for his whereabouts on the night in question.
He’s bailed out somewhat when Jane Fuller (Gretchen Mol), a previously unknown daughter of Hannon shows up to give him an alibi, but Hall still wants to find out what happened to his friend. Believing the answer lies somewhere in the computerpast, he jacks into the the cyberface, or whatever we were calling it in Space Year 1999, and tries questioning Hannon’s occasional 30’s avatar. Between this and conversations with fellow programmer / 30’s bartender Whitney (Vincent D’Onofrio), it soon becomes apparent that many things are not as they seem, with fundamental questions on the nature of the realities they have been creating and that they are part of coming in to play.
There’s a whole bundle of Noir tropes to be getting on with there, from the amnesia, to the mistaken identities (or a variant thereof) to the visual style, aided of course the setting, as a good portion of the film takes place in a simulacrum of the 30’s when Noir was more commonly found. The meat of the film is in the murder mystery plot, with the multiple characters and personalities each actor plays providing the sizzle.
I apparently sailed straight by this on initial release, and in the U.K. it seems to have been doomed to go straight to video. I’m not at all alone in that it seems, and while I think I’d heard the name very infrequently over the past 16-17 years this was my first viewing, and I came away quite impressed. Craig Bierko’s perhaps not the most charismatic or remarkable leading man, but he’s perfectly capable of carrying the narrative and evoking sympathy, while D’Onofrio for once has good reason to break out his unique brand of scenery chewing. Gretchen Mol’s character, or better put, characters, are perhaps the least well developed which is a tad unfortunate but perhaps understandable in a film which has quite a lot going on, narratively speaking.
It seems, on a brief glance at the Rotten Tomatoes-ometer, that “having a lot going on” rather counted against The Thirteenth Floor in critical and public opinion, which I find a little puzzling. It’s a busy plot, for sure, but it’s well laid out and easy enough to follow. You could more feasibly take issue with some aspects of the technology, with the whole “consciousness transfer” thing being an unfortunately shoogly peg to hang the narrative from, but if you get over that hump there’s not a great deal to dislike in the film.
Indeed, the biggest mistake the film made was having released a few months after The Matrix explored some broadly similar concepts, admittedly in markedly more spectacular ways, taking most of the oxygen from the space. However, that’s not to say that the ideas of The Thirteenth Floor aren’t worth exploring – they most certainly are. I wouldn’t say I’ve discovered a new favourite in the genre, but it’s an above average entry that does not deserve the fate that has been meted out to it, and I’d certainly encourage anyone with a passing interest in sci-fi to track this down if they haven’t already.
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