Bright Lights Film Journal

“Fascinating. Horrible, but Fascinating”: 20 Million Miles to Earth on DVD

In which Harryhausen’s most poignant monster mixes it up

After pioneering French filmmaker Georges Mêlies, there are few special effects icons left to trip over on your way to current industry giants such as Walt Disney, Industrial Light and Magic, WETA, Pixar, and others. In other words, there are few American special effects or animation artists alive who have the kind of name recognition that belongs to Oscar-winner Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion, rear-projection (“Dynamation”) style revolutionized the industry and influenced countless generations of visual artists, including George Lucas and Henry Selick.

And while he really left his mark on cinema with the seminal 7th Voyage of Sinbad – which featured an eye-opening slew of stop-motion tricks including a Cyclops, a dragon, and skeletons – and his swan song work on Clash of the Titans, this film’s Frankenstein monster-ish Ymir kidnapped from Venus is one of Harryhausen’s early masterworks of empathy of imagination. In fact, the only real knock on 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) is one that dogged Harryhausen throughout his career: his creations are more animate and sometimes infinitely more interesting than the real actors they either terrorized or worked alongside.

Which is something you kinda figure out within the first few minutes of this sci-fi B-movie’s theorization of technocultural progress gone hubristic, starting with its narrator’s self-absorbed preamble about how science kicks so much ass and ending with two blue-collar Italian seamen’s banter about whether or not they should paddle on over to the huge rocket that just fell out of the sky. (By the way, prepare your ears for some language mangling). It’s not really until after the brave seamen pull two survivors – including Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper), the film’s main (human) character – from the sinking spaceship, set them up in a nearby infirmary in their sleepy seaside village, and notify the Americans that things get moving. The ship also happened to be carrying the Ymir in pupa form aboard its crash course return from Venus, which is something Pepe (Bart Braverman), a local kid who tagged along for the rescue mission, figures out for himself when he spots something weird washing up onshore in a container. Figuring it’s valuable, he sells it to a visiting zoologist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), whose gorgeous daughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor), screams “love interest,” and bam, you’ve got yourself a reliable monster-on-a-rampage setup.

Evidently not afraid of contagion or spoilage, Leonardo leaves the pupa on the table in his mobile home, so it’s ready to hatch (like the subplots) as soon as Marisa comes home after tussling with an irascible Calder (hey, ease up, lady – he’s just traveled 20 million miles!) at the infirmary. And what a hatch it is – Harryhausen’s small, well-muscled Godzilla looks and plays the newborn baby to the hilt, shielding its eyes from the light as Marisa turns it on, softly rubbing them, trying to contemplate being alive, a stranger in a strange land. It’s a star turn for a stop-motion creature, one that sticks with the viewer more than the silly love story developing between Marisa and Calder as the film progresses.

From there it’s downhill as this “horrible but fascinating” creature tires quickly of imprisonment in either the cage or museum that human culture can’t help but place him in. Just looking to satisfy his overwhelming sulfur urge (!) on the shores of Italy’s quaint villages, he endures everything from captivity, electroshock, flamethrowers, bullets, a pitchfork in the back (ouch!) to full-scale miltary onslaughts before he’s blasted from the top of Rome’s famed Coliseum, King King-style, to his unfair and untimely death. And although the Americans – here in the form of the military and scientists – seem to lament his loss (while the Italians understandably enough just want to eradicate him), the film spends entirely too much time reveling in the havoc wreaked by the Ymir rather than condemning those that unfairly forced him into going nuts in the first place.

It isn’t until you really jump into the DVD’s cool special features, namely the fabulous “Harryhausen Chronicles,” that you realize that the animator’s sympathies not only were with 20 Million’s Ymir, but that they powered Harryhausen’s conceptualizations of the complex creature. He doesn’t really have anything good to say about the humans who hound the poor thing to its death, but the only place that attitude shines through the postwar political paranoia of the film is in the Ymir’s early scenes. Once it gets bigger than the elephant it wrestles to the death during its rampage in the streets of Rome, there is no question where the film’s sympathies lie – the miltary.

Which is where the out-of-nowhere love story between Colonel Calder and Marisa comes in. Conveniently enough, the two first show a romantic interest in each other only after the Ymir breaks out of Leonardo’s cage, and they don’t truly couple until the end, after the creature has bit the dust. In true B-movie fashion, the creature is a roadblock between two lovers looking to just get together and get their lives on track. Indeed, while Calder’s busy with overseeing the electroshocked Ymir, Marisa wisecracks about a “nightmare” she keeps having involving an empty table at the Italian restaurant where the two never seem to able to find time to meet (because, you know, Calder’s so busy with his monster and everything). And so the audience’s sympathy is diverted from Harryhausen’s fish-out-of-water Venusian citizen to the two lovers ducking as the bullets fly and the granite comes tumbling down.

No, other than the early scenes of the Ymir’s maturation, the DVD’s true gift is “The Harryhausen Chronicles,” an extensive survey of the special effects guru’s career directed by film critic Richard Schickel. Entitled with a nod to the animator’s lifelong buddy Ray Bradbury – author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 – this biographical look at one canonical animator functions equally as a history of science fiction film’s visual effects. Covering everything from Harryhausen’s early work to his very cool finale, Clash of the Titans, and featuring praise from Bradbury, Lucas, Selick, and others, “The Harryhausen Chronicles” is an informative lesson in how mechanically complex it once was to make believable sci-fi classics.

But whether you’re picking up 20 Million Miles to Earth for the film itself or the peripheral materials, it is nevertheless an invaluable DVD for film historians, visual effects aficionados and practitioners, and sci-fi buffs looking to pad their knowledge of cinema.