20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Scott Thill

The only real knock on '20 Million Miles to Earth' is one that more or less dogged Harryhausen throughout his career: his creations are more animate and sometimes infinitely more interesting than their live actor costars.

20 Million Miles to Earth

Director: Nathan Juran
Cast: William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia, John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry, Tito Vuolo, Jan Arvan, Arthur Space, Bart
MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
First date: 1957
US DVD Release Date: 2002-06-25

After pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies, 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, Digital Domain, and Pixar. 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") technique revolutionized the industry and influenced countless generations of visual artists, including George Lucas and Henry Selick.

He left his most indelible mark on cinema with the seminal 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) -- whose eye-opening slew of stop-motion tricks featured a Cyclops, a dragon, saber-rattling skeletons, and more -- and Clash of the Titans. But that was his pull-out-all-the-stops shot at special effects filmmaking, one based on a solid foundation of previous audience-captivating work.

Enter 20 Million Miles to Earth's Ymir, a kind of Frankenstein's monster kidnapped from Venus, is one of Harryhausen's early masterworks of empathy and imagination. In fact, the only real knock on 20 Million Miles to Earth is one that more or less dogged Harryhausen throughout his career: his creations are more animate and sometimes infinitely more interesting than their live actor costars.

This is something you kinda figure out within the first few minutes of this sci-fi B-movie's theorization of technocultural progress gone hubristic. It starts with a 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. Only after the seamen pull two survivors -- including the film's human protagonist, Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper) -- from the sinking spaceship, do things get moving.

The other survivor is the Ymir, in pupa form. Pepe (Bart Braverman), a local kid who tags along for the rescue mission, figures this much out 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), is the obvious "love interest," and bam, you've got yourself a reliable monster-on-a-rampage set-up.

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 Marisa turns on, contemplating being alive, a stranger in a strange land. It's a star turn for this stop-motion creature, one that sticks with the viewer more than the silly love story developing between Marisa and Calder.

The Ymir -- a byproduct of what Contino (Jan Arvan), an Italian government official, terms America's "horrible, but fascinating" round trip to Venus (a phrase that is easily affixed to the general perception of the creature itself throughout the film) -- tires quickly of being imprisoned, whether in a cage or a museum. In his quest to satisfy his indigenous urge to consume sulfur for sustenance, the Ymir endures everything from electroshock, flamethrowers, and gunfire, to a pitchfork in the back (ouch!) and full-scale military onslaughts, before he's blasted from the top of Rome's famed Coliseum, King Kong-style, to his untimely death. Although the Americans -- here in the form of troops and scientists -- seem to lament his loss, the film spends entirely too much time reveling in the havoc wreaked by the Ymir than it does condemning those who forced him into going nuts in the first place.

It isn't until you jump into the DVD's cool special features, namely the fabulous documentary, The Harryhausen Chronicles, that you realize that the extent of animator's sympathies for the Ymir. He doesn't have anything good to say about the humans who hound the poor thing to his death, though this is only visible in the film's early scenes featuring the little Ymir. Once the creature gets bigger than the elephant he wrestles to the death in the streets of Rome, there is no question where the film's sympathies lie, with the international military and its weaponry.

This is where the 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 couple until the end of the film, after the creature bites the dust. In standard B-move fashion, the creature serves as roadblock to the romance; indeed, while Calder's busy with overseeing the electro-shocked Ymir, Marisa describes a "nightmare" she keeps having, involving an empty table at the Italian restaurant where the two never seem to able to find the 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 to the two lovers ducking, as the bullets fly and the granite comes tumbling down -- with the Ymir along for the fatal ride.

Like I said, once the Ymir metamorphoses from a lonely but interesting extra-terrestrial life form adrift on an alien planet into a full-fledged, one-dimensional monster, the film goes south and quickly. Which is where the special features thankfully come in. Other than the scenes showing the Ymir's maturation, the DVD's true gift is the aforementioned Harryhausen Chronicles, an extensive, behind-the-scenes look at the special effects guru's career.

Directed by film critic Richard Schickel and titled with a nod to the animator's lifelong buddy, Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, this look at the animator functions as part biography and part history of science fiction cinema's visual effects. Covering everything from Harryhausen's early work to Clash of the Titans, and including praise from Bradbury, Lucas, and Selick, The Harryhausen Chronicles indicates how mechanically complex it once was to make believable sci-fi classics. The fact that Harryhausen's models had so many moving parts, each manipulated separately to create fluidity during lighting shifts, is something that even sci-fi film fans may not know. In these days of rampant CGI, Harryhausen's stop-motion mechanical effects may look clunky, but they were time-intensive labors of love that vastly outdistanced the work of his peers.

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

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.