DVD Review Of 20 Million Miles To Earth

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/10/07


  20 Million Miles To Earth is visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s 1957 black and white interplanetary King Kong remake, as well as a tribute to his stop motion photography mentor Willis O’Brien. No, it’s not a direct analogy, but there are so many scene for scene knockoffs from Kong that one must believe that only Harryhausen could have gotten away with so much theft (read that as ‘homage’) from his mentor without facing a lawsuit. Yes, technically, the film was directed by noted B film maven Nathan Juran (The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad), but it’s a very standard film, wholly carried into the memory by Harryhausen’s skills.

  That stated, it’s also a very enjoyable film. How can I type that, as I have built a reputation upon my damning of clichés? Simple, it has to do with a lack of pretension. Harryhausen and Juran aim for only one thing- total entertainment for the film’s 83 minute running time. And they succeed with good special effects, easy to see through emotional manipulations, and an intriguing lead character- the thing from Venus. Most reviews call the creature an Ymir, but never is that phrase uttered a single time in the film. It was likely used in a promotional packet and stuck with the film. Always, in the internal world of the film, the creature is called ‘the creature,’ or some variant.

  The screenplay for the film was written by Charlotte Knight, Bob Williams, and Christopher Knopf, and adapted from Knight’s original story. Ok, to call her story ‘original’ is stretching the term. Here is a précis of the film: rocket ship goes to Venus, the crew of seventeen is killed, save for two survivors. The rocket crashes into the Mediterranean, off of Sicily, then sinks. Two local fisherman and a small boy, rescue the two astronauts, and we get a brief glimpse of a dead ‘man’ that looks suspiciously like the gray aliens from recent UFO folklore. Later, a container with the tiny unhatched creature, washes on shore, and the boy turns it and its jelly-like egg, over to the local zoologist, for 200 lira, to buy himself a cowboy hat. The creature grows, escapes, is mercilessly attacked by scared little men- as well as a dog and an elephant. It goes berserk, and climbs to the top of the Roman Coliseum, where it is shot down and dies.

  Ok, aside from King Kong, there are at least a dozen other horror films, in the quarter century between that classic and this film, that this narrative outline could wrap about 90% of itself about. And its antecedents are even more manifest, from the following year’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space to the Alien film franchise twenty-plus years later. And, the acting is no great shakes, although William Hopper (veteran of The Deadly Mantis), as Colonel Robert Calder, is serviceable as an American military hack. And, although she has no real business being in this film, save as a love interest in a thankfully unrealized story arc, Joan Taylor (from Harryhausen’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers), as Marisa Leonardo, an ‘almost doctor,’ is babeolicious enough to ogle. Anyone else is utterly archetypal, at best- even the cute little Italian kid (Bart Braverman as Pepe), obsessed with Texas cowboys, who looses havoc by opening the container.

  The film is buoyed by Harryhausen’s effects and the surprisingly good cinematography of Irving Lippman and Carlo Ventimiglia. The DVD of the film comes in both the 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios, and has only a few features, including some Harryhausen film trailers, the short This Is Dynamation featurette, which details Harryhausen’s process, and an hour long The Harryhausen Chronicles, which appears on all the films in the Harryhausen boxed DVD set called the Legendary Science Fiction Collection, of which this film is a part of. A new two disk 50th Anniversary edition of the film is soon to be released, and it is rumored to have Harryhausen commenting on it, but the film survives well enough without comment. The new DVD version will also have a colorized version of the film, supervised by Harryhausen, who originally wanted the film in color, but was denied for budget limitations. Some other features will be an interview with Harryhausen conducted by juvenile filmmaker Tim Burton, an interview with Joan Taylor, a featurette on the film’s music and colorization process, and a sneak peek of an upcoming comic book version of the film.

  Despite its filmic limitations, the creature is sympathetic, and not the typical monster on the rampage. Harryhausen somehow imbues all of his creations with genuine emotions- something that not a single high tech digital cartoon character, such as Shrek, has ever matched. This is truly AMAZING, and all the capitalization of the letters in that term is deserved. There are, of course, some obvious Dumbest Possible Action twists, such as when a farmer’s dog attacks the creature and is pummeled, and then later, when the creature is huge, and takes on an elephant- in this film’s version of Kong’s set-to with a T. Rex. After all, most animals will not attack things they are not familiar with. And elephants, especially, would not go on a rampage against an unknown predator. And, despite coming from another planet, the elephant is clearly larger and heavier than the creature, and tramples it several times.

  Yet, the creature is unhurt, as it is also not hurt by bullets. The pseudoscientific explanation is that the creature’s Venusian adaptations include no heart nor lungs, so it is a spongy mass. Ok, well…then why does it succumb to bullets in the final scene atop the Coliseum? And does it survive the multi-ton elephant trampling because it’s spongy, too? And, if it lacks lungs, why do we see it clearly breathing from its torso when it is electrically sedated in Rome? And how could the U.S. have launched a rocket ship to Venus without the press knowing of it? This assumes that the conquest of the moon has already been made, as well. And, after the first few encounters, one would hope that the military and scientific men would notice that the creature is not hostile, unless provoked. Hell, Calder even admits so in the barn sequence. But, what does he go and do, mere seconds later? He provokes it with a stick instead of radioing in for help and overwhelming force to subdue it. And the Italians are even worse and more Neolithic than the Americans. The Americans, at least, want to capture the creature alive and study it, while the Italians (Sicilians) just want it dead. These, and many other queries have to be overlooked (and I won’t even get into the scientific anachronism of Venus as a habitable planet), but it’s a sci fi film, so a certain suspension of disbelief is required, and the movie rewards that small request with non-stop action, and, as stated, the best acting performance in the film coming from Harryhausen’s creature.

  The film also features a classic 1950s era opening narrative about ‘SCIENCE!’: ‘Great scientific advances are often times sudden accomplished facts before most of us are dimly aware of them. Breathtakingly unexpected, for example, was the searing flash that announced the atomic age. Equally unexpected was the next gigantic stride, when man moved out of his very orbit to a point more than 20 Million Miles To Earth!’ Cue the start of the film! And the end is just as priceless. With the prone body of the beast in front of them, and as the hero and heroine depart, presumably to get to know each other better (even though Calder has yet to sit through a moment’s worth of decontamination), the military and scientific men commiserate thusly, by asking, ‘Why is it always so costly for man to move from the present, into the future?’ Didacticism is always good for a guffaw in sci fi films.

  But, 20 Million Miles To Earth offers more than a few condescending chuckles; it offers a glimpse into a not too long ago time when wonder was still enough to propel a film. Nowadays, too many people ruin films by asking questions that the films acknowledge as givens, and need far too many special effects, as they are too lazy to imbue, and actively participate in art. Ray Harryhausen and Nathan Juran’s film does more with less than many films that came later, and even if that sentiment is trite, it’s also true. And 20 Million Miles To Earth is a highly enjoyable film, no matter how cookie cutter it is. After all, what determines the success of a cookie is not its shape, but its taste, and that comes from its ingredients, not its mold. What Harryhausen had in his best films was a good recipe, and alot of talent, to fit into some very old and familiar molds. Thus why they are still savored to this day, no matter how many times the hand has held such before.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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