Tuesday, May 11, 2010

20 Million Miles To Earth

Ray Harryhausen is the undisputed master of stop-motion animation, the process of creating special effects using articulated models, photographed with incremental motion and then turned into a movie clip. He is best known for his fantasy films, including a number of adventures of Sinbad and the original Clash of the Titans. In the 1950s, he had an impressive run of “Giant Creature” movies, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath the Sea. These and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers also moved his work into a more science-fiction direction. In 1957, he took his crew to Italy to film 20 Million Miles to Earth. Why Italy? According to Harryhausen himself, he wanted to take an extended vacation in Italy, and this was the only way he could afford it.

A fleet of Sicilian fishermen have their work interrupted by the splashdown of a giant spacecraft. Before the craft sinks, two of the fishermen rescue two survivors. It turns out to be an American spaceship, returning from a mission to Venus, a mission that was kept secret because…well, just because. A young boy with the fishermen recovers a container with what appears to be a giant larva inside it. The boy is an enterprising and mercenary lad, the president of his school’s chapter of FMS (Future Mafioso of Sicily), and sells the larva to a vacationing professor for pocket change. Fortunately for the plot, the professor has a beautiful daughter to serve as a love interest for an astronaut.

The larva soon hatches a cute little Venusian creature called an Ymir. Well, that’s its name, but it isn’t actually called that in the film because the producers thought it would be confused with Emir, a type of Middle Eastern ruler who is apparently a giant reptile. The cuteness of the Ymir doesn’t last long, because its size is increasing exponentially. By the time it reaches Rome, it has reached Godzilla size and is ready for a rampage. Only the astronaut, the professor’s daughter, and the Italian army stand in the way of the beast wrecking the ancient ruins of Rome.

The highlight of the film is definitely Harryhausen’s animation. The Ymir fights an elephant, has a face-off in the Coliseum with the army, and generally tears stuff up. The style of animation used in the film has become passé today, but it still stirs the imagination. Few have ever had the affinity for creating giant monsters as Ray Harryhausen, and the Ymir is a thrilling.

There are also quite a few weaknesses. Harryhausen’s preference seemed to be for fantasy (the original storyboards depict the Ymir as a giant Cyclops) and the sci-fi elements are weak. Where does the creature get the mass to increase its size so dramatically, and why does Earth’s atmosphere make it grow in the first place? There are also plot holes, such as why the Italian professor, who speaks with an Italian accent, naturally enough, has a daughter with an American accent. The plot serves a s a vehicle to get to the monster mayhem, logic be damned.

The acting is fairly wooden. The only recognizable actor is William Hopper as the astronaut, who was a supporting player on the Perry Mason TV show, and the actors aren’t helped by dialogue that clanks and groans. My favorite line is from the press conference after the spaceship crashes, when the American representative reveals the ship was on a mission to Venus. One of the reporters asks, “You mean Venus…the planet?” Fortunately for the reporter, the guy holding the press conference wasn’t as prone to sarcasm as I am.

Despite its flaws, 20 Million Miles to Earth is a lot of fun, and you get exactly what you would expect (a giant monster running amok). If this sort of movie appeals to you and you haven’t seen the movie, you should give it a try.

One final note: Like most movie buffs, I am fervently opposed to the “colorization” of old black and white movies. 20 Million Miles to Earth is presented on the blu ray both in the original black and white and a colorized version done for its 50th anniversary, and it might be the one exception to my opposition. Harryhausen himself, who wanted to film the movie in color but couldn’t afford it, supervised the process himself, and I have to admit it looks good. I’m glad both versions are available on the disc.

1 comment:

Ronald Kelly said...

One of my personal favorites! I remember seeing it when I was six or seven and thinking "Wouldn't be cool to see this monster fight King Kong?"