Tag Archives: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Greetings humanoids!  As summer begins to scorch the green from the lawn, it’s time to resurrect a Graham’s Crackers tradition from a few years ago:  the movie series review!  You may not realize this, given the complete absence of advertising and hype thus far, but there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out at the end of July.  Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth volume of films based on that obscure cancelled sci-fi series from the 60’s, is due to hit theaters on July 22, 2016.  Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012 I did a day-by-day recap of every James Bond movie leading up to the release of Skyfall, offering up a custom brew of trivia, anecdotes and commentary designed to whet appetites for what turned out to be arguably the best 007 movie of our generation – and Star Trek Beyond‘s pending premiere gives me a lovely excuse to do the same for the bygone silver screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data et al.  There are seven weeks remaining and only twelve movies to get through so the posting schedule won’t quite be so rigorous – but hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and perhaps you might be inclined to brush the dust off your DVD cases and pop them in again.

Without further ado, let us… engage!

Given the entrenchment of Star Trek into western popular culture as we know it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was nothing more than an old cancelled NBC space show with a robust group of dedicated fans who couldn’t let go – the Firefly of its day.  In the mid-1970’s, without the Internet to give viral life to the latest rumor, one could rely only on tantalizing hints of revival shared at conventions like a game of telephone.  For series creator Gene Roddenberry, a contradiction of a man whose lasting vision and humanism were always tempered in life by a healthy degree of Barnum-esque hucksterism, the notion of being able to squeeze a few more cents from a past success in a climate where his attempts to move on were flaming out left and right must have been powerfully compelling.  When he would show up and announce that he was working on a way for Star Trek to return, who knew how much of that was truth and how much was just baiting the hook so he could keep charging appearance fees and selling merchandise?  The short-lived animated Star Trek series was a taste, an ultimately unsatisfying hors d’oeuvre, but for fans, it was something – something to stoke the fire of hope for the return of the genuine article.

Eventually, Roddenberry got down to business and began writing, cobbling together a controversial screenplay provisionally named The God Thing that was subsequently given the green light for a very low budget – even for the penny-pinching 1970’s – movie.  But in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a straight road, and The God Thing would be rewritten, cancelled, revived as a TV pilot, cancelled again, scheduled as a TV movie of the week, cancelled, and then finally – after Star Wars exploded across the world, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its heels proved that the popularity of sci-fi wasn’t a one-off fluke – given the go-ahead as a big budget motion picture.  The best effects houses in the country were hired to give it a sweep and scope equal to Star Wars, and the production secured the services of director Robert Wise – a filmmaker who had edited Citizen Kane, directed one of the highest grossing movies of all time (The Sound of Music) and won an Oscar for West Side Story.  And the movie was titled, to remove any sense of doubt as to its potential for epicness, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the 23rd Century, an unspecified number of years after the conclusion of the USS Enterprise‘s five year mission to explore strange new worlds, a massive energy cloud that is vaporizing everyone and everything in its path is headed straight for Earth.  The highly decorated Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) undertakes some bureaucratic wrangling to get himself assigned as captain of his old ship, which is currently undergoing a massive refit in orbit.  In doing so, he displaces its current captain and his protege, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), and swiftly recruits his old crew to accompany him on this emergency mission – all with the exception of science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is back home on the planet Vulcan attempting to purge himself of his lingering human emotions, but at the same time is drawn to a consciousness at the heart of the energy cloud and in short order, finds himself back – albeit uneasily – amongst his old friends, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.  Also signing on for this mission is the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a mysterious bald alien woman who has a history with Decker.

After a nearly fatal misadventure inside a wormhole thanks to Kirk’s unfamiliarity with his new ship, the Enterprise arrives at the energy cloud and manages to avoid being vaporized (thanks to Spock’s quick thinking).  The ship penetrates and journeys deep inside the cloud, seeking to make contact with the intelligence that is powering it, to try and convince it to leave Earth alone.  Abruptly, Ilia is abducted and replaced with a probe identical in appearance (but with a sudden penchant for high heels and short skirts) through which the crew can now communicate with the intelligence, which calls itself V’Ger.  V’Ger is a form of mechanical life travelling to Earth to locate its creator, with whom it plans to join.  After Spock goes rogue attempting to investigate further, he reveals his understanding of his connection to V’Ger – both incomplete and searching for someone who can provide answers.  V’Ger is having a crisis of faith – for a mechanized life form built to function solely on logic, this is an anomaly that it simply cannot compute.  The Enterprise is finally welcomed inside the heart of the energy cloud, where they discover what V’Ger really is:  a probe built by NASA and launched over 300 years ago, Voyager 6 (V—ger), which has grown beyond its 1970’s programming and become sentient.  Voyager has seen the universe, has learned the what and the where and the how, and now wants to understand the why.  The answer lies in the human equation:  Decker sacrifices himself to join with Voyager and Ilia, completing a trinity of sorts which causes them to ascend to a plane of existence beyond our comprehension and leave the Enterprise (and Earth) alone to continue its adventures.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or TMP in fan shorthand) is most definitely not akin to Star Wars.  There is no swashbuckling, there are no action scenes to speak of.  There isn’t even really a villain.  This is less shades of Joseph Campbell on monomyth than it is a deeply philosophical pondering of essential questions of human existence – notions of faith and purpose and the meaning of it all, perhaps with the aspiration of the story far exceeding its capacity to reach it in the course of an economical running time.  It’s interesting to situate the movie opposite its sequel, The Wrath of Khan, as the two most literate and intellectual Star Trek movies ever made.  But where Wrath of Khan locates the philosophy in the hearts of its characters, TMP assigns them to a largely offscreen, unfathomable character that we, the audience, don’t really care that much about.  There are few personal consequences whether or not V’Ger gets its answers, other than the hackneyed “Earth will be destroyed!” gimmick.  The resolution of the crisis is also hived off to supporting characters that we’ve just met and haven’t invested that much in either.  Stephen Collins brings a great deal of likability to his thinly-written Decker, and Persis Khambatta tries her best but is stuck in a pretty dumb, borderline unplayable role.  (I have to roll my eyes at the description of her character – an alien beauty from a race that is supposedly so sexually alluring that members of her species have to take “oaths of celibacy” in order to serve safely with humans, lest they, I don’t know, sex them to death?  Such a creation would not be out of place in anything directed by Michael Bay, and speaks to irritation at the way Roddenberry and many, many artists and creators like him over the decades feel this puerile compulsion to flaunt their sexual fantasies publicly within their art.  Put it this way – a woman wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Ilia.)

What is striking about the regular cast is how uncomfortable they seem in their roles.  With the bulk of the movie’s runtime given to showcasing the effects work, the script is thin on character moments as it is, but even in those brief bluescreen-free scenes, there is a notable lack of energy to the interactions, stemming from the fact that Kirk just doesn’t seem like Kirk, McCoy is not McCoy, and so on down the line.  I’m sure not all of it can be traced to the ridiculous uniforms they were clad in (Shatner observes in his book Star Trek Movie Memories that the actors could not sit between takes without ruining the costumes, and an inadequate compromise was made with the crew providing boards that they could lean against instead).  It must have been a considerable challenge for each actor, returning to a part they had played ten years earlier – and never expected to again – and trying to recapture what was endearing about them in the first place while regurgitating technobabble and conjuring emotions at blank screens where effects would be inserted later.  This works for the story, to a point; the Enterprise crew is supposed to be uneasy at being reunited suddenly in a crisis after a long time on separate paths, not to mention worried at the fate of their home world, but for an audience, especially for a 1979 audience that had waited to see these people again for a long, lingering decade, it would have simply felt wrong, as if you’d showed up at someone else’s family reunion.  There is no sense of camaraderie; the interplay, even the familiar banter between Spock and McCoy, is forced and clunky.  The screenplay uses the characters only as props in service of exploring the movie’s larger philosophical canvas, rather than using the philosophy to explore the characters.  The dialogue is almost exclusively explanatory and plot-driven, “Morris the Explainer” writ large.  As such our emotional investment in the journey is minimal, and as the credits roll, we might be thinking about what we’ve just seen, but we don’t feel much of anything.  The motion picture has not moved us.

So what works about The Motion Picture?

Two major things.  The first and most obvious answer is Jerry Goldsmith’s music.  There had been a merciful pivot away from the deeply grating bleeps and boops that characterized 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cemented with John Williams’ brilliant work in Star Wars.  Given his turn at the podium, Goldsmith echoed Williams’ symphonic sweep in the creation of the famous main title theme which would appear in five of the films and serve as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also craftily incorporated some electronic elements to underscore the eerieness of the mysterious cloud as the Enterprise travels through it, the music often the only element pushing the movie forward through long, silent stretches.  The visual effects, assembled by such industry heavyweights as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, are sublime, and the odd wonky matte painting aside, hold up extremely well against their modern-day CGI equivalents.  They rival and arguably exceed the Star Gate sequence in 2001 in terms of their abstract beauty and the imagination infused into the imagery.  It’s not X-wings flying over the Death Star, but it’s art, and much of it is beautiful.  The only mistake with the effects is the fault of whomever decided that every penny that was spent had to wind up on the screen, to the detriment of pace.  (Wise had to cut the movie together without the effects in place, as they were still being worked on right up until almost the hour of the gala premiere.)

A criticism levelled frequently at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is boring.  A critic at the time complained that it had “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars.”  In hindsight, Roddenberry, Wise and the production team deserve some credit for not trying to make another Star Wars.  Their noble error was in going too far the other way, of giving us poetry when a prose exploration of the same subject would have been more in line with what the audience wanted.  In a sense, the entire movie functions not as narrative but as metaphor, and a rather vaginal one at that given the predominance of men in the cast:  it was observed by a smarter mind than myself that the Enterprise, a tiny speck soaring deep through the tunnels of a vast energy matrix in search of V’Ger, is a sperm bringing the spark of humanity to the egg waiting to be fertilized by it.  Throw in talk of the creator and creating God in our own image and you’re dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff, man, when perhaps most people just wanted to see some spaceships blow up.  Still, if you’re not going to press my thrill button, or try to stir my emotions, then at least challenge my intellect, and in that area, The Motion Picture succeeds.  I, too, have on occasion stopped to ask the question to the empty air just as Spock does at a critical moment in the third act:  “Is this all that I am; is there nothing more?”  Figuring that out seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be human – the fuel that has driven Star Trek in all its forms.

That, to me, is the polar opposite of boring.

The Motion Picture also works as a necessary stepping stone for what is to come; a cathartic purge, if you will, of the mess of false starts and dashed hopes that preceded its creation.  It dispenses with the awkward baby steps that were always going to accompany the first reunion of the characters and their transition from small screen to big and gives the series tabula rasa to move forward to much greater heights in a brand new era.  It is also, in its more stately approach to the solving of narrative problems, a template for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Where Gene Roddenberry had to include a fistfight to sell his show when NBC had dismissed Star Trek‘s first pilot as too cerebral, here we see that cerebral approach to storytelling in full, elegant display.  V’Ger begins the movie as a terrifying antagonist, doing seemingly villainous things, but its actions are not out of spite, and a crisis is eventually resolved without shots fired nor nuclear explosions set off (aside from the “heavenly” burst of white light that accompanies the creation of new life at the end).  There is a profound optimism in the message that understanding is the greatest means at our disposal to end conflict between enemies who seem implacable.  Today, when a presidential candidate bleats incessantly about building walls to keep the terrifying others out, we should take this message to heart, even if our cinematic appetites have always trended toward resolution by good old-fashioned shoot-em-up – as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Star Wars.

In summary:  Points for score, effects, philosophical underpinning and aspirational reach.  Probably the best, if only, “hard sci-fi” Star Trek film. Marks off though for weak characters, expositional writing, languid pace and a lack of emotional depth.  It’s Star Trek, but it’s not enough Star Trek, if that makes any sense.

As the last thing you see before the credits promises, the human adventure is just beginning, and next time we’ll delve deeper into what is still regarded, justifiably, as the greatest Star Trek movie of them all, where we learn that it was the Klingons who said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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Deckard’s Not a Replicant: Blade Runner revisited

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I haven’t watched or even thought about Blade Runner in a good while.  The other day on the tweet-o-machine, my old friend Tadd reminded me of it by pointing me in the direction of an essay on the timeless, Ridley Scott-directed 1982 sci-fi classic, which dared to tackle the question of whether or not its lead character, grizzled replicant-hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) was in fact one of the very same androids dreaming of electric unicorns it was his duty to gun down on sight – a debate that has raged among fandom for thirty-two years, with contradictions as to the answer offered depending on which of the movie’s creative partners you ask.  (The director says yes, absolutely, that was always the intention; the star says no, that’s not what I agreed to.)  Anyway, if you haven’t the time to peruse the linked entry, the thesis presented therein is that not only is Deckard a replicant, but he carries the memories of the enigmatic Gaff (Edward James Olmos), his flashily-dressed, patois-riffing colleague who has a penchant for creating origami out of random bits of trash that display a preternatural insight into the mindset of our hero.  Brian, another good pal from the old hood, ruminated over this for a few days and offered his own persuasive rebuttal, arguing that Deckard might indeed be a replicant but that he’s merely an artificial reincarnation of the original human Deckard, Gaff’s dead partner.  Admittedly, I’ve always leaned toward the notion that Deckard is as constructed as the beings he’s chasing, but in the course of a single series of tweets, I’ve had something of a revelation on the subject.  And it’s not just born of my fascination with contradictions, or a hipster-esque need to go against the grain.  But I’m satisfied now that Deckard is as human as Gaff, Bryant, Holden, Tyrell, J.F. Sebastian and the old sushi master from the beginning of the movie – and that to insist otherwise is to rob Blade Runner of much of what it is trying to say about humanity, and about the nature of the soul.

A lot of the evidence for the Deckard-as-replicant theory is drawn from the Paul is Dead school, where coincidence and editing errors on the part of the filmmakers are selectively interpreted by the audience towards a predetermined conclusion – notes such as the number of replicants mentioned by Captain Bryant not adding up, the peculiar glow in Harrison Ford’s eyes in one shot matching that of the replicants and so forth.  The idea that Gaff’s memories are informing Deckard’s actions fits very neatly into this conceit.  However, Gaff is not the first character to exist within the world of a narrative and possess an omniscient awareness of what is going on within the mind of the protagonist.  For a more recent example, look at Sam Elliott’s Stranger in The Big Lebowski:  a character within the film who is impossibly aware of events in which he does not take part.  Gaff, it can be argued, fills the Stranger’s role in Blade Runner.  (The owner of the all-seeing eye glimpsed in the opening sequence is never revealed, but interestingly, it is the same ice blue as Gaff’s – ponder that for a moment.)  Granted, his “insights,” at least at first, are not terribly revealing – the chicken origami reflecting Deckard’s reluctance to take on the job, the erect matchstick man keying in on Deckard’s growing feelings for Rachael.  But then, Deckard is not exactly living a life that is immune to prediction and analysis, either.

In examining the nature of the soul, Blade Runner questions whether the humans, who are born with souls, are truly deserving of them, while presenting us with artificial beings who want nothing more than to possess this most uniquely human trait.  The humans of Los Angeles, November 2019, are living essentially soulless lives, having carpeted their planet in concrete and steel and even driven the sun from the sky, shuffling about as both rain and advertising pelt down on them in a constant, depressing drizzle.  Compassion and empathy are as extinct as animals here (otherwise the penalty for finding a replicant on earth wouldn’t be death without due process).  Until summoned by Gaff, Deckard meanders through the world, eating in public yet shunning company, getting drunk alone each night in an apartment full of relics of a past, more fulfilling life.  His actions, then, those supposedly illuminated by Gaff’s origami, aren’t programmed memories – they’re merely predictable responses from a man irrevocably plugged into the system, a system that Gaff, like any good omniscient narrator, can recognize even if the rest of the characters in the movie can’t.  Although, Captain Bryant seems to at least understand his role as well, with his line about Deckard’s option to go back to work for that same system or be crushed under it (“if you’re not cop, you’re little people.”)  In this context, Deckard is indeed subject to a kind of programming, yet the ASCII of his soul is written in the slouching language of age, circumstance and apathy, instead of ones and zeroes (or the GCAT of genetic design, as befits the Nexus 6).  Ironic that the test the humans have devised to detect replicants, the infamous Voight-Kampff, works by stimulating emotions, when those administering it seem to have none themselves.

Though lost in the decayed urban hellscape, Deckard still finds idle moments to dream of something better, something elusive, something magical to break him from the drudgery.  His unicorn, literally.  In Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, that something seems utterly unobtainable, hence the use of a unicorn to symbolize what Deckard craves is apt.  We are led to understand then that Deckard’s unicorn manifests itself in the shape of Rachael.  She is introduced in film noir tones, in the shape of a femme fatale:  dark hair, long red nails, wreathed in cigarette smoke; enticing, untouchable.  Her manner, however, is as far from Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck as Rick Deckard is from Han Solo.  Rachael is innocent, scared, trying to cope with the revelation that everything she thought about herself was a lie, that the soul she thought she possessed was the invention of her boss, her memories those of his niece, implanted to provide a cushion for her emotions.  Yet she does feel, moreso than any other character in the movie.  Her challenge to Deckard, when she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, is less an insinuation that he’s a replicant than it is a plain statement that for someone lucky enough to be born human, he certainly doesn’t choose to act like one.  Contrasted with Deckard, Rachael is, indeed, as per the Tyrell Corporation’s motto, “more human than human.”  The uncomfortable scene where she and Deckard kiss for the first time is less Deckard trying to evoke emotions in an artificial being than it is him trying to stimulate the dormant soul within himself – making himself feel something, the way he’s supposed to, latching on to the tiny flame she’s managed to stir inside him and blow gas on it.  The evolution of the relationship between Deckard and Rachael, his learning to develop compassion for someone considered “lesser” by the system that controls his life, is meaningless if he is also a replicant, if fundamentally it’s just two robots trying to figure out how to mash circuits together.

Of course, theirs is not the only human/replicant relationship in the movie:  Blade Runner‘s ultimate expression of the emotional capacity of the creator versus the created comes in the often less than subtle Christ allegory present in the character of replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the ostensible villain of the piece.  With his time about to expire, Batty risks the return to earth to find his designer/deity, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel, poised at the top of the world’s tallest building and dressed all in flowing white robes, naturally) and ask for an extension to his four-year lifespan.  There’s a line spoken by Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released three years earlier) that well encapsulates the Batty-Tyrell dynamic:  “Each of us, at some point in his life, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a god, and asks, ‘is this all that I am, is there nothing more?'”  Batty isn’t really looking for more time in terms of minutes and hours, he’s searching for a vindication of his existence.  In the words that ultimately doom the “god of cybernetics,” all Tyrell can offer his prodigal son is the bromide that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, “and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.”  Roy then betrays himself with a kiss and crushes his father’s head in his hands.  As he descends from the top floor of the Tyrell Corporation, back to the decayed cityscape (a literal descent into Hell, one might say), the psychotic look on Batty’s face suggests that without the resolution he wanted, he has accepted the system’s role for him as the villain.  You made me to be a soulless monster, I will now become that nightmare.  I will show you all.

Which leads to his first and final encounter with Deckard – if one will permit drawing from Apocalypse Now, yet another film released three years prior (and one featuring Harrison Ford, no less) – an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.  To Batty, Deckard is dirt beneath his shoe, a nuisance to be disposed of, not to mention the man responsible for the death of two of his replicant friends.  Batty owes him nothing but an unpleasant death.  But on that rainy rooftop, as his life-clock dwindles to its final ticks, Batty makes a choice to become more than the limits of his design, of his programming.  He sees, ultimately, in Deckard, something to which he can relate – the feeling of being trapped, being a slave to a system he had no hand in creating.  From that seed springs compassion, and, with nail through palm, Batty saves Deckard’s life, finally achieving what he most desired – a soul – by creating it himself.  Becoming more than the sum of his programming, exceeding the flaws of the designers who assembled him in a lab, demonstrating to the man in front of him that he is, finally, more human than human.  And then, in one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes in all of cinema, delivering his own eulogy.  Speaking about the incredible things he has seen, showing Deckard what is possible given the wondrous gift of life, and giving Deckard a chance to make the most of his own, with the life Batty has returned to him by pulling him off that ledge.  “Time to die” – for the sins of humanity.  And as the dove in his palm flies free, so does Roy Batty’s new soul, at peace now.  Deckard, the Roman centurion, can merely marvel at what is transpiring before him.  If he’s just another replicant, as so many want to believe, then the impact of Batty’s sacrifice is blunted.  It becomes in effect merely a rah-rah moment for robots, rather than the transcendent, evolutionary note it needs to be.

Gaff’s return and the film’s final five minutes are where one has to make the decision on whether to accept the idea of Deckard as replicant.  Gaff says “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.  I guess you’re through, huh?”  He answers Deckard’s response with his lingering parting thought, echoed just before the credits roll, as Deckard contemplates the tinfoil origami unicorn:  “It’s too bad she won’t live; then again who does?”  At this point, Deckard’s sins have been cleansed, and he has been given the opportunity to break free of the system and begin a new life with Rachael, one that will be rich and fulfilling, and in the film’s most potent irony, it is the artificial beings that have shown the human being how.  When the preternaturally aware Gaff says “I guess you’re through,” what he means is, I know I’m stuck here, and I’m okay with that, but you’ve found your way out – good on you, pal.  The origami unicorn is the reminder – you’ve found something rare and precious, now don’t cock it up.  Don’t waste your second chance.  Burn brightly.  Live.  Follow Batty’s example and create your own soul, grow beyond the limits of who you think you are and what you think it is your fate to be.  That’s much more powerful and impactful a message than a literal indication that we know what you’re dreaming about because you were assembled in a lab and you have someone else’s memories.  Deckard in this moment is Everyman – us – and we need a human being with which to identify, so we too may take up that torch.

I hardly expect, in meandering about here today, that this will be the final word on the Deckard-as-replicant debate.  In struggling to bring this piece to a conclusion I realize I could probably go on until the word count stretched into the 100K range, so deep are Blade Runner‘s facets, how it too overcame its genesis as a sci-fi action movie about Harrison Ford hunting robots to become an endlessly rich, meditative statement on the nature of what it means to be human.  And in order for that to work as intended, Deckard has to have been human all along, merely enslaved by a different form of self-imposed programming.  That contrast, human versus artificial programming, and the capacity to grow beyond it, is the heart of Blade Runner‘s moral debate.  A debate needs both sides.  Make Deckard a replicant and you’ve lost the distinction, you’ve diminished the meaning, you’ve made the extraordinary a bit more ordinary for the sake of feeling clever for having discovered something that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with.

So, in summation:  Deckard’s human, Batty is Christ, Tyrell is God, Rachael is more Disney’s Ariel than Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, Gaff is the Stranger from Lebowski with a different hat, the unicorn dream is a longing for magic in a world cleansed of any semblance of it, and the comments are open as always awaiting your polite dissent.  I’ll be over here in my spinner, ruminating on what to do with my next four years.